The Feds’ contempt for justice

July 2, 2008

The federal government has reached a new milestone in its never-ending persecution of Sami Al-Arian.

JUST WHEN you thought that the Bush administration's witch-hunt of Arabs and Muslims and its contempt for human rights couldn't sink any lower, a federal prosecutor has found a way to descend to new depths.

On June 30, former University of South Florida professor Sami Al-Arian was brought before a Virginia court to face an indictment on two counts of criminal contempt for his refusal to testify before a grand jury in a government inquiry into the International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT).

The charges represent a new stage in the government's never-ending campaign of persecution against him.

Al-Arian was first arrested in February 2003. After a six-month trial that the government spent more than $50 million on, a Florida jury refused to find Al-Arian guilty of a single count that he used a think tank and a Muslim school and charity as a cover for raising funds to finance "terrorism."

Facing the prospect of a lengthy retrial and further separation from his family, Al-Arian pled guilty to a single count of the least-serious charge against him in exchange for what was supposed to be a minor additional sentence and voluntary deportation.

Leena Al-Arian reads a letter written by her father, witch-hunt victim Sami Al-Arian, at a February 2003 protest
Leena Al-Arian reads a letter written by her father at a February 2003 protest

Instead, Gordon Kromberg, the assistant U.S. attorney for the eastern district of Virginia, had Al-Arian moved to that state to try to force his testimony in an investigation into the IIIT--in defiance of an agreement with Florida prosecutors, recorded in court transcripts, that Al-Arian would be exempt from future testimony.

Charged with civil contempt when he refused to testify, Al-Arian was kept imprisoned, even after his originally scheduled April release date earlier this year.

According to Al-Arian's lawyers and family, the attempt to force his testimony is a vicious Catch-22. By not testifying, he faces the prospect of additional contempt charges. But if he were to testify, however, it is likely the government would simply charge him with perjury, leading as well to further incarceration.

As his lawyer Jonathan Turley commented, "This was a classic perjury trap used repeatedly by the government to punish those individuals who could not be convicted before an American jury."

During his years in prison, Al-Arian has faced constant racism and harassment at the hands of prison officials. Despite two lengthy hunger strikes--the most recent lasting a total of 57 days--and his offer to take a polygraph test to prove that he has no additional information bout the IIIT case, government prosecutors have continued to hound him.

As Stetson Law School professor Charles Rose told the Tampa Bay Observer, criminal contempt charges like those against Al-Arian are extremely rare. "I just can't imagine that this is still around," Rose said. "You almost never see a charge of criminal contempt, historically, unless you're dealing with organized crime."

Sami Al-Arian's case is a chilling example of the ongoing persecution of Arabs and Muslims as part of the U.S. "war on terror." His case should provoke outrage among anyone interested in protecting civil liberties.

As his daughter, author and activist Laila Al-Arian, told the Washington Post, "This is a really dirty game the government is playing. They've already put him through enough. Enough is enough."

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