By Chris Hedges
Editor’s note: Despite spending an estimated $80 million, the government was unable to prove that Dr. Sami Al-Arian was a terrorist, yet he remains in prison and his sentence will likely be extended. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Chris Hedges warns that the abusive imprisonment of this nonviolent Palestinian dissenter does not bode well for the rest of us.
Professor Sami Al-Arian, whose persecution and show trial are parts of a long string of egregious acts of injustice perpetrated by the Bush administration, has been on a hunger strike since Jan. 22 to protest the prolongation of his imprisonment.
Al-Arian’s travels through the halls of American justice, and now the subterranean corridors of the nation’s Stygian prison system, reads like a bad rip-off of Kafka. Al-Arian was acquitted on eight of the 17 counts against him by a Florida jury, which deadlocked on the rest. He agreed to plead guilty to one of the remaining charges four months later in exchange for being released and deported. The judge gave Al-Arian as much prison time as possible under a plea deal—57 months at his sentencing. He was set to be released this April, something that now appears unlikely.
The trial was a stinging rebuke to the Bush administration’s drive to turn the American judicial system into kangaroo courts. Over the six-month trial a parade of 80 witnesses, including 21 from Israel, attempted to brand the Florida professor as a terrorist. The government submitted thousands of documents, phone interceptions and physical surveillance culled from 12 years of investigations. The trial cost taxpayers an estimated $80 million. The 94 charges against Al-Arian and his co-defendants resulted in no convictions. But because Al-Arian has twice refused to testify before a grand jury in Virginia in a case involving a Muslim think tank, he has now been charged with contempt of court. The date of his release could be extended by as much as 18 months.
Al-Arian, who is a diabetic, began a hunger strike in response.
“I believe that freedom and human dignity are more precious than life itself,” he said in a telephone interview from Northern Neck Regional Jail in Warsaw, Va. “In, essence I am taking a principled stand that I am willing to endure whatever it takes to win my freedom.
“I am still OK,” he said. “I have lost 26 pounds by today. It’s definitely not easy, but I am determined to continue. It’s not a decision you make haphazardly or something that you take lightly. In the end, you have to make difficult decisions because of the larger cause. I drink four large cups of water a day, about 12 ounces each.”
Dr. Al-Arian said he will remain on a hunger strike until the government ends its campaign against him and allows him to return to his wife and children.
The case and continued harassment sets a dangerous precedent for American Muslims, who since 9/11 have been monitored, detained and deported in large numbers. But it bodes ill for the rest of us as well. The new legislation suspending habeas corpus and creating the possibility of legally stripping U.S. citizens of their right to a fair and timely trial is a taste of what awaits us all should we enter a period of instability or national crisis. In many ways the assault against Al-Arian is an assault against the judicial system that lies like a barrier between us and despotism.
“Much of the government’s evidence against me were speeches I gave, lectures I presented, articles I wrote, magazines I edited, books I owned, conferences I convened, rallies I attended, interviews I conducted, news I heard and websites no one accessed…In one instance, the evidence consisted of a conversation that one of my co-defendants had with me in his dream,” he said. “It was reminiscent of the thought crime of Orwell’s ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four.’ The scary part was not that these were offered into evidence, but that a federal judge admitted them. That’s why I am so proud of the jury, who acted as the free people that they were and saw through Big Brother’s tactics.
“I’ve been to nine prisons in nine months,” he explained. “I spent the first 23 months in Coleman Federal Penitentiary, where the conditions were Guantanamo-plus, that is they were like those of the detainees in Guantanamo Bay ‘plus’ one phone call a month and visits with my family behind glass. I was in a nine-foot-by-eight-foot cell, where I was held under 23-hour lockdown. During the first few months, they wouldn’t even allow me to exercise unless I was strip-searched, which I refused to submit to, so I was inside 24 hours. During the first month, I was allowed only one 15-minute phone call, and for six months after that I was not allowed to make any calls.
“I was shackled and handcuffed every single time I left my cell for any reason,” he said. “When I needed to take my legal papers for meetings with my attorney, the guards would not carry them for me, even though they did for other prisoners. Though I was shackled, they forced me to carry them on my back, as I was bent over. I had to walk like that for half a mile. I should also mention the use of fire alarms in trying to disrupt life. In the Special Housing Unit [SHU], a punitive section of the prison where I was the only pretrial detainee, alarms and emergency sirens would go off 15 to 20 times every single day, at 12 a.m., 2 p.m., any time of the day. It was a deafening noise that would continue for five to 10 minutes. It was clearly deliberate. In the SHU, commissary was almost nonexistent. All they offered was potato chips, whereas in the general compound everything was available. The SHU was designed for disciplinary purposes, not for housing a pretrial detainee.
“Not only did they place me in the SHU, but they imposed additional restrictions on me,” he went on. “For instance, everybody else was granted contact visits, while I had to see my family behind glass. They also insisted on strip-searching me before and after these behind-the-glass visits. In May 2003, my wife drove two hours to see me, but they denied her the visit when I would not submit to a strip search.”
Al-Arian is a Palestinian. The injustice meted out to him in America is writ large in the Middle East. He has no passport, no home, no country. He must live on the charity of others, stateless, as most Palestinians are, and without the rights of the citizens around him. He once thought America would be his home. He was, before this charade, in the process of gaining citizenship. All this is over. In George Bush’s America there is no place for activists or dissidents. And when they finish with those on the margins of our society they will turn, if we let them, on the rest of us.