The case of the US government versus Sami Al-Arian seems endless. On the eve of yet another hearing, Judge Leonie Brinkema issued an order to cancel the hearing scheduled for the morning of October 29, in Washington D.C. Dr. Sami Al-Arian is the University of South Florida professor who was arrested in 2003 and charged with terrorism in the United States seven years ago. He was put on trial in a federal court in Tampa, Florida, two-and-a half years after his arrest. The six month trial ended on December 6, 2005. The jury decision for eight counts of terrorism was “not guilty,” and they deadlocked 10-2 in favor of acquittal for lesser charges. The verdict was a victory for democracy and the right of free speech, but for government prosecutors, who had spent years collecting “evidence,” it was a monumental defeat. Embarrassed, a campaign of vindictive revenge that began at the end of the trial continues today.
But let’s go back to the trial and some undisclosed reasons for the determination to ‘get Sami’ at all costs (and there are plenty; millions of taxpayer dollars just for the trial).
After 43 months of incarceration, much of the time spent in solitary confinement under abusive conditions, ground rule agreement between the Al-Arian defense team and the team of government prosecutors was that the Israel-Palestine crisis not be introduced as an issue in the case.
Yet, I see an irony. To this day, the deep-rooted crisis in the troubled Middle East region of Israel/Palestine lies at the core of Al-Arian’s case; and with it, his constitutional right to speak out about it, a right guaranteed by the first amendment. Yet, these troubled waters were to remain uncharted, forbidden to be mentioned during the trial. Still, Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands, supported by the US, remains a thorn in the side of Palestinians. Talk of Israel in any but supportive terms invites accusations of anti-Semitism. And for Jewish-Americans staunchly in support of Israel, there can be no other side.
The plight of Palestinians was little known in America. But Al-Arian, a Palestinian, knew and spoke out against unjust policies that favored Israel and neglected and disparaged the Palestinian side.
Speeches about the occupation of Palestine, the abuse of people suffering under Israel’s cruel occupation, supported by the United States, opened America’s blinded eyes, and invited an extensive government investigation of Al-Arian.
Al-Arian’s parents had been victims of the Nakba, the massacre and diaspora that occurred when Israel was created. They drifted from country to country with nowhere to call ‘home.’ Sami was born in Kuwait; and his parents impressed upon him early on, the importance becoming educated. Opportunity came with scholarships to study in the US. He stayed and received advanced degrees, married, and began to raise his American-born children in ‘the land of the free.’
An increase in the Arab and Muslim population in Florida’s Tampa Bay area, inspired him to establish a Muslim school. Former students described him as being approachable, easy to talk to and a good listener. The father of two sons and three daughters, he especially encouraged young women to pursue an education. He was admired and respected by colleagues at the University of South Florida where he taught computer science. A community leader, he encouraged Muslims to vote and to become active in the broader community.
Then came 9-ll, the Patriot Act and a widespread persecution of Arabs and Muslims in America. On February 20, 2003, Al-Arian was arrested and silenced, languishing in prison, while the world turned to other events and Palestine was all but forgotten. Two-and-a-half years later, the trial made headline news with Al-Arian taking center stage, not as an advocate for Palestinian rights, but rather as a ‘terrorist.’ Former Attorney General John Ashcroft declared on all the major media outlets that Dr. Sami Al-Arian was one of the most dangerous people in the world.
Although ground rules denied mention of the Palestinian side, during the trial the government prosecution called 80 witnesses including 21 from Israel in an attempt to link Al-Arian to terrorist acts in Israel. At the conclusion of prosecution testimonies, in a surprise move, the defense for Al-Arian rested his case without calling a single witness. The case was to rely entirely on defense of his First Amendment Right of Free Speech.
Following his acquittal, instead of being released, Al-Arian continued to be held. Disputing terms of his plea agreement, when the government called upon him to give testimony in another case, he refused. Refusal led to federal grand jury indictments, and a classic prosecutorial trap: agreeing to testify would result in a charge of perjury, and refusal would mean contempt. In 2008, civil contempt charges were followed by a criminal contempt charge.
The ongoing saga raises a number of questions about the state of the U.S. justice system. In March 2009, Judge Brinkema ruled in favor of a defense request to file a motion to dismiss charges and was to rule without further hearings. Now well over another year has passed, and a new motion by the government meant to force the judge to rule has now been postponed.
Seven years have passed since Dr. Sami Al-Arian was arrested and subsequently cleared of terrorism charges. Yet, he remains incarcerated and is presently under house arrest for an indeterminate period of time – waiting, waiting … for the government machinations to end and the legal system to untangle so that he and his family can put a nightmare in America behind them and get on with their lives.