Yesterday, I visited with Sameeh Hammoudeh and his family. He was a co-defendant in the terrorism trial of Dr. Sami Al-Arian. It was a very important visit and before I describe it, youâ€™ll need this background.In February 2003, at the same time Dr. Sami Al-Arian was arrested, Sameeh Hammoudeh was also arrested. Accused of terrorist activities, Hammoudeh was one of the three co-defendants who appeared with Al-Arian in the high-profile federal case that took place in Tampa, Florida. The six month trial ended in December 2005. All defendants were found â€œnot guiltyâ€ of any terrorist activities.â€ Before the trial, U.S. citizens Ghassan Ballut and Hatim Fariz were released on bail. Bail for Hammoudeh and Al-Arian had been denied and they spent two and a half years before the trial in prison, most of the time in solitary.
As of today, Al-Arian remains imprisoned. The other defendants were freed. But for Sameeh Hammoudeh, who was exonerated of all charges and had already served two and a half years of pre-trial imprisonment, the suffering and anguish continued for another six months. Held in a detention center awaiting deportation, we began to correspond by letter.
At the time of his arrest, Hammoudeh had been a PHD candidate studying anthropology at the University of South Florida. Awarded a scholarship, he took his wife and three daughters to Tampa. After receiving his Masters degree in 1996, he continued with advanced studies for a PhD. Three months away from completing requirements, he was arrested.
In order to tell the story of the persecution of Sami Al-Arian, and the carefully orchestrated attempts to keep him silenced about the plight of Palestinians and the cruelty of the Israeli occupation of Palestine, I traveled to the West Bank and committed to work as a volunteer for the IMEMC (International Middle East Media Center), a news service branch of the peace oriented Rapprochement Center. IMEMC is dedicated to reportage of news from within the occupied territories of the Palestinian West Bank and Gaza.
I live in a mixed Christian and Muslim neighborhood of Bethlehem with a Christian Palestinian family. Here I have ample opportunity to speak directly with the people and to see for myself the conditions experienced daily by ordinary people suffering under the yoke of occupation. By living among them, I am able to understand the outcry of Dr. Sami Al-Arian, and the anger fomented by a cruel system. I begin also to understand the concerted efforts to keep Sami behind bars and forever silenced. Because he is frequently moved, distance and sharply curtailed visitation rights, prevent visits to learn his story first hand. It was my hope to fill in the blanks by meeting with Sameeh Hammoudeh, his colleague, friend and ultimately a co-defendant in the high profile terrorism trial that ended in the acquittal of the four defendants.
Hammoudehâ€™s story of his time in prison before the trial, the pressure brought down upon him and his family were intricately entwined with that of Sami Al-Arian, the articulate and outspoken advocate of Palestinian rights who still remains imprisoned.
As Palestinians, the Hammoudeh family is not permitted to travel to Bethlehem, normally a 20 minute drive from Bethlehem through Jerusalem. But Sameeh and his wife, Nadir extended a warm invitation for my friend Sherrill and me to visit them at their home in Ramallah where the family has now settled.
A difficult journey
From the Bethlehem bus station, Sherrill and I board a servees, a shared van to Ramallah, a distance of about 40 km (24 miles) away.
We cannot take a straight route through Jerusalem but must circumvent the city. The road is circuitous with many harrowing hairpin turns along narrow mountainous roads, paved but bumpy. We stop at the â€œContainerâ€ checkpoint, so named because it is housed in what was originally just a large box that was supposed to be temporary. A gruff Israeli soldier looks at our passports and questions Sherrill.
â€œWhere you went from?â€ He attempts in English.
Sherrill is calm. It is her sixth visit to Palestine and she knows the routine.
â€œIt says on my passport,â€ she replies.
I remain silent, my heart thudding. The soldier collects our American passports and the papers of the other five Palestinian passengers. They remain calm, passive and accepting. I wonder what each is thinking. Sameeh calls us on Sherrillâ€™s cell phone. We joke about the delay.
â€œNo doubt weâ€™re being put into a computer,â€ Sherrill says.
After twenty minutes, our documents are returned and we leave, passing Bedouin tent city villages along the way. In the distance is the settlement of Maâ€™ae Adrummim, an Israeli settlement enclosed within a wall.
I think, Israeli or Palestinian, everyone here is imprisoned.
A revealing visit
Sameeh picks us up in central Ramallah and drives us to his house. The Hammoudeh home is a large apartment, part of a family owned building. Sameeh shows us into a book-lined library room and serves us tea and cookies homemade by Nadia. I look over his extensive book collection, a composite of Arabic and English authors, political books and the works of the worldâ€™s great thinkers. We are joined by Nadia and Weeam, 22 and Doah, 20, their two eldest daughters and we begin a long and revealing conversation.
Weeam is open and speaks freely about what she remembers of her fatherâ€™s arrest.
â€œIt came out of nowhere and seemed like a bad dream,â€œ she said, â€œI was in Miami and a friend told me. I tried calling my friend Leena [Sami Al-Arianâ€™s daughter] but couldnâ€™t get her.â€
Weeam said that Leena had always felt they [the US government] would do something because Sami was so outspoken and the Al-Arian family had been under surveillance for years.
Sameeh told his story:
The prosecution lied to the grand jury: they claimed he had used code in his correspondence with his father and that â€œfamilyâ€ was a code name for the PIJ (Palestinian Islamic Jihad). The PIJ was declared a terrorist organization in 1996 and neither his father nor he had anything to do with them.
In a two day separate trial, Weean said she and her grandfather had testified.
Sameeh added to his daughterâ€™s story.
â€œMy father gave money to orphans, the prosecutors tried to play with minds. They twisted my name, called me Hami to rhyme with Sami. They wanted to claim I had taken over for him [as a terrorist leader].â€
He explained that Sami was the real target because he was an activist and an outspoken advocate of Palestinian rights. Sami knew people in the PIJ but in 1996 when the organization was labeled â€˜terroristâ€™ by the U.S. government, Sami had nothing more to do with them.
I recalled the court proceeding, remember seeing part of the transcript statement Sami had made. After PIJ had been declared â€œterrorist,â€ he had said, â€œI will have nothing to do with violence.â€ Ignored by the prosecution, it was still in the record. I remember the prosecution attorneys saying many times: â€œYou have to connect the dots.â€ I looked for them as did the jury. There were no dots to connect.
Sameeh recalled the brutal conditions under which he and Al-Arian lived for two and a half years before the Tampa trial got underway. They had been sent to Coleman Federal Penitentiary, a facility designated for convicted, violent criminals, where they were kept in solitary confinement for twenty three and sometimes twenty four hours a day.
The trip from Coleman Federal Penitentiary to the jail in Tampa takes an entire day, Sameeh said.
â€œIn the bus we were shackled, arms and legs in irons and a heavy chain down the front connecting them. We were given no food or water. This is terrorism,â€ Sameeh emphasized.
Nadia said she was questioned, asked to convince her husband to cooperate.
â€œI know he didnâ€™t do anything wrong: I had to concentrate on my family – they [the government] wanted Sami.
Sameeh said that they were trying to build a conspiracy charge but you need two or more for a conspiracy and though they knew him to be innocent, they needed at least one other person to make their conspiracy case.
Sameeh smiles broadly as he relates the horrors of the past. He hugs his youngest, seven year old Mohammed. I had only seen Sameeh in the courtroom; we had never met face to face until now. I had met Nadia and the older girls, Weean and Doah outside the courthouse and in front of the Orient Point jail. It was their tears I remembered. Now all were relaxed and cheerful, so different from the tense meetings of those dark moments during the trial.
Conversation turned to their new lives in Ramallah and the living conditions in the West Bank or Palestine. Weean is articulate, intuitive and well informed. Early teen years were spent in the U.S. and she has a good grasp of both Arab and western cultures. She spoke of the change in Palestine since her return.
â€œEveryone here is on survival mode. As for peace talks, Palestinians are in a weak position.â€ She gave a history of changes since the second Intifada in 2002. In 2000 after Sharon went into the mosque in Jerusalem, everything changed. He was very right wing. She said people stopped going out.
Democracy, human rights, womenâ€™s empowerment programs â€“ you donâ€™t see it, most have political leanings. And since non-government organizations have to sign anti-terrorism pacts because aid is dependent on it, it is hard to make progress.
The more outspoken get money so itâ€™s not completely free of political involvement. Organizations donâ€™t mix much with the people.â€
â€œThere is a need for law enforcement but itâ€™s not possible without a sovereign state, and you canâ€™t have that if you are occupied,â€ She said in Palestine, they pay taxes twice, to Israel and to the PA (Palestinian Authority). Anything you do has to go through Israeli economics, even trips to Jordan. â€œIt divides the Arab world creating a disconnect.â€
â€œWeâ€™re too dependent on international aid. It makes us weak because we have to accept whatever is happening.â€
Doah studies in Lebanon and said when she is on campus there, she participates in organizations but there is a stigma attached to Palestinians, at its root is the refugee problem there.
Nadir had prepared a traditional Palestinian dish called makloova, It consists of layers of chicken, eggplant, carrots, rice and traditional spices prepared in a large pot. After it is cooked, the pot is turned upside down onto a platter and served at the family table.
After dinner, we return to the library room for tea and more conversation.
Sameeh said, â€œThe country that violates the most American values is Israel and America is supporting them. Israel is defying freedom of speech, movement and our fundamental rights. It is Satanic. Our image in the outside world is distorted. We love life and love our children.â€
After the trial and his complete exoneration, Sameeh had requested that he be allowed to complete the PHD he had come to the United States to acquire. In spite of the many letters written on his behalf, it was denied.
We concluded our visit by asking Sameeh what he would like us to take to the people back home in the United States.
â€œHereâ€™s what I want you to know,â€ he began, â€œthe jurors had said â€˜you have nothing.â€™ Look at the facts as the jurors did. Are you going to look at the facts of what your government is doing?â€
â€œIsrael cannot survive without your support; the world is coming into the US: you cannot ignore it.â€ Doah added,
â€œKeep an open mind: values are different. The US sees only its own culture and there is little curiosity about others.â€
She said it is tragic that they cannot travel more. Only one visa is issued to a person each year. â€œMany overstay their visit.â€
Nadir now teaches elementary school. And Sameeh teaches Political Science and anthropology at the prestigious Birzeit University in Palestine. He enjoys teaching and gives lectures about the â€œcolorâ€ of justice in the United States.
The nightmare ended, I saw no sign of bitterness, no design of retaliation for the grave injustice suffered, only a renewed joy of once more being united with his family and the generous warmth of friendship.