One of the first big show trials here in the post-9/11 homeland was of a Muslim professor from Florida, now 49, Sami Al-Arian. Pro-Israel hawks had resented this computer professor at the University of South Florida long before Atta and the hijackers flew their planes into the Trade Towers because they saw Al-Arian, a Palestinian born in Kuwait of parents kicked out of their homeland in 1948, as an effective agitator here for the Palestinian cause. As John Sugg, a fine journalist based in Tampa who’s followed Al-Arian’s tribulations for years, wrote in the spring of 2006:
“When was Al-Arian important? More than a decade ago, when Israel’s Likudniks in the United States, such as [Steven] Emerson, were working feverishly to undermine the Oslo peace process. No Arab voice could be tolerated, and Al-Arian was vigorously trying to communicate with our government and its leaders. He was being successful, making speeches to intelligence and military commanders at MacDill AFB’s Central Command, inviting the FBI and other officials to attend meetings of his groups. People were beginning to listen.”
At the direct instigation of Attorney General Ashcroft, the Feds threw the book at Al-Arian in February 2003. He was arrested with much fanfare and charged in a bloated terrorism and conspiracy case. He spent two and a half years in prison, in solitary confinement under atrocious conditions. To confer with his lawyers, he had to hobble half a mile, hands and feet shackled, his law files balanced on his back.
The six-month trial in US District Court in Tampa featured eighty government witnesses (including twenty-one from Israel) and 400 intercepted phone calls (the result of a decade of surveillance and half a million recorded calls). One bit of evidence consisted of a conversation a co-defendant had with Al-Arian in his dream. The defense rested without calling a single witness or presenting any evidence, since the government’s case rested entirely on First Amendment-protected activities.
The man presiding over Al-Arian’s trial was US District Court Judge James Moody, a creature from the dark lagoon of Floridian jurisprudence. Hospitable to all testimony from Israelis, Moody ruled that Al-Arian and his associates could not say a single word about the military occupation or the plight of the Palestinian people. During closing arguments, the prosecution noted a document that mentioned UN Resolution 242. Moody nixed that on the grounds that it showed Palestinians in altogether too warm a light and therefore might tax the objectivity of the jurors.
In December 2005, despite Moody’s diligence, the jury acquitted Al-Arian of the most serious charges. On those remaining, the usual prosecutorial flailings under conspiracy statutes, jurors voted 10 to 2 for acquittal. Two co-defendants were acquitted completely. It was a terrible humiliation for the Justice Department, which had flung an estimated $50 million into the trial.
A jury split 10 to 2 in a defendant’s favor doesn’t augur well for conviction in a retrial. But the Feds insisted they wanted to put Al-Arian through the wringer again and–prudently, given Moody’s prejudice–Al-Arian’s lawyers urged him to make a plea and put an end to his ordeal.
A central aspect of the plea agreement was an understanding that Al-Arian would not be subject to further prosecution or called to cooperate with the government on any matter. The government recommended the shortest possible sentence.
On May 1, 2006, Al-Arian came before Judge Moody for sentencing. Watching the proceedings Sugg, as he reported on the CounterPunch website, noted a smug air among the prosecutors. He also noted that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales had arrived in the Tampa area five days earlier. Under the plea, Al-Arian’s sentence amounted to little more than time served, followed by his departure from the United States. But Judge Moody sentenced Al-Arian to the maximum, using inflamed language about Al-Arian having blood on his hands, a charge one juror said the jury emphatically rejected.
Now Al-Arian faced eleven more months in prison, with release and deportation scheduled for April 2007. But the Feds’ appetite was far from slaked. In October Gordon Kromberg, an assistant federal prosecutor in Virginia notorious as an Islamophobe, called Al-Arian to testify before a grand jury investigating an Islamic think tank. The subpoena was an outright violation of Al-Arian’s April plea agreement, and his attorneys filed a motion to quash it. The motion included affidavits by attorneys who participated in the negotiations attesting that “the overarching purpose of the parties’ plea agreement was to conclude, once and for all, all business between the government and Dr. Al-Arian.” The defense lawyers insisted that Al-Arian would never have entered a plea that left him vulnerable to government fishing expeditions.
Al-Arian’s lawyers feared that their client was being set up for a perjury trap. Up in Virginia, Kromberg ranted to Al-Arian’s attorney about “the Islamization of America,” while down in Tampa, Judge Moody ruled that federal marshals could drag Al-Arian to Virginia to testify. On November 16 Al-Arian was brought before the grand jury and placed in civil contempt for refusing to testify.
One month after Al-Arian was placed in civil contempt, the grand jury term expired, so Kromberg impaneled a new one. Al-Arian was again subpoenaed and again expressed his ethical stance against testifying. This judge also held him in contempt, which could prolong his imprisonment by up to eighteen months.
Al-Arian, who is diabetic, is now in the sixth week of a water-only hunger strike and has already lost forty pounds. On February 14, the twenty-third day of his fast, Al-Arian collapsed; he has since been moved to a prison medical facility in North Carolina.
Measured against José Padilla, a man driven insane on Rumsfeld’s orders, I guess Al-Arian is lucky. He’s alive, and still sane, though getting weaker by the day. He needs all the support we can muster. Across the globe, Al-Arian’s case has aroused much outrage, and respect for the US commitment to constitutional freedoms sinks lower still.
For information on the case, go to www.freesamialarian.com.