The Persecution of Sami Al-Arian

The Persecution of Sami Al-Arian

The US government’s shameful auto-da-fé of Sami Al-Arian enters a new phase.


This story has been corrected to reflect an error in the original version. In fact, Sami Al-Arian was not found guilty of any charge, but subsequently signed a plea agreement in which he plead guilty to one charge of providing nonviolent services to people associated with a designated terrorist organization.

There are few prospects in the justice system so grimly awful as when the feds decide never to let go. Rebuffed in their persecutions of some target by juries, or by contrary judges, they shift ground, betray solemn agreements, dream up new stratagems to exhaust their victims, drive them into bankruptcy, despair and even to suicide. They have all the money and all the time in the world. Sixteen months ago I wrote here about the appalling vendetta conducted by the Justice Department against Sami Al-Arian, a professor from Florida who had the book thrown at him in 2003 by Attorney General John Ashcroft. As I described it then, Dr. Al-Arian was charged in a bloated terrorism and conspiracy case and spent two and a half years in prison, in solitary confinement.

In December 2005, despite the efforts of a blatantly biased judge, a jury acquitted Dr. Al-Arian of the most serious charges. Dr. Al-Arian’s lawyers urged him to plead guilty to a watered-down version of one relatively minor offense to put an end to his ordeal and the suffering of his family. A central aspect of the plea agreement was an understanding that Dr. Al-Arian would not be subject to further prosecution or called to cooperate with the government on any matter. The plea agreement signed with Florida prosecutors explicitly protected him from cooperating in any additional cases. The government recommended the shortest possible sentence, no more than time served.

But then, almost certainly after a visit to the local federal prosecutors in Tampa by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, the feds double-crossed him on the plea agreement, and he was thrown back into prison. The biased judge handed down the maximum sentence, which meant a further eleven months of incarceration before release and deportation slated for April 2007. Then Dr. Al-Arian passed into the malign orbit of prosecutors in Virginia, notably assistant federal prosecutor Gordon Kromberg. The Justice Department’s plan was to set up Dr. Al-Arian in a perjury trap, compelling him to testify before a grand jury investigating an Islamic think tank called the International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT) in a case completely unrelated to his. The institute has been the target of a six-year witch hunt by Kromberg.

On November 16, 2006, dragged up to Virginia, Dr. Al-Arian was brought before a grand jury and placed in civil contempt for refusing to testify–because the actual intent of the subpoena was the attempt to trap him. When the grand jury’s term expired, Kromberg promptly empaneled a new one. Dr. Al-Arian was again subpoenaed and again refused to testify. Shunted among prisons in Atlanta and Petersburg and Alexandria, Virginia, Dr. Al-Arian endured hunger strikes and maltreatment from guards.

Even with the additional time served, Dr. Al-Arian’s sentence ended on April 6 of this year. He was then taken into the custody of immigration authorities, who were making preparations for his deportation. On June 26 the Justice Department elected to plunge Dr. Al-Arian and his family into fresh torments, thus prolonging the slow-moving auto-da-fé of the past five years. A new federal indictment charges Dr. Al-Arian with two counts of criminal contempt, relating to the efforts by Virginia prosecutors to bring him before a grand jury investigating other Muslim organizations. Dr. Al-Arian faces additional prison time if convicted. Criminal contempt in the American legal system has no maximum penalty.

"This indictment proves that the government was never interested in any information that Dr. Al-Arian has on the IIIT matter," said his attorney, Professor Jonathan Turley, who has represented Dr. Al-Arian since April 2007. "They have indicted him despite the fact that the prosecutors admitted that he is a minor witness in the IIIT investigation, and he has already given two detailed statements under oath to the government and offered to take a polygraph examination to prove that he has given true information about his knowledge of IIIT. Dr. Al-Arian has addressed every document cited by the government as the reason for his being called before the grand jury. He has shown that he has no incriminating information to offer against either IIIT or its officers."

On June 30, Dr. Al-Arian was arraigned before US District Judge Leonie Brinkema for the Eastern District of Columbia, but Dr. Al-Arian did not enter a plea, as Turley stated they were not prepared to do so. The court then entered a plea of not guilty and scheduled a trial to begin August 13. According to a statement issued by Turley, the government is further seeking to indict Dr. Al-Arian for the period during which he was under civil contempt confinement. Thus, after holding him for a year, the government now seeks to punish him for the same period of the confinement.

Why the continued efforts to destroy Dr. Al-Arian? He’s just one more object lesson to the world of what can happen to a Muslim–a Palestinian–who tried with some success to combat ignorance and prejudice in the Middle Eastern debate and who established his innocence to a jury on the grave charges the government spent millions to sustain in that Florida court. His assailants in the Justice Department have probably anticipated with relish that Dr. Al-Arian would succumb to malnutrition and illness in one of the holes into which he has been flung. They were mistaken. Sustained by his family, capable attorneys and vast sympathy across the world, Dr. Al-Arian has stayed in the ring with his fearsome and vindictive persecutors. Every word of support and encouragement is important to Dr. Al-Arian and his family. Send such words to [email protected].

(Thanks to Nation intern Sousan Hammad for pulling together developments in Dr. Al-Arian’s case.)

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