The end of a decade-old witch hunt

July 7, 2014

After forcing Sami Al-Arian through an 11-year nightmare, the federal government was finally forced to drop its trumped-up charges. Elizabeth Schulte explains why.

SAMI AL-ARIAN, whose case has been one of the most shocking examples of the government's persecution of Arabs and Muslims after September 11, may finally see some justice.

On June 27, federal prosecutors filed a motion to dismiss a 2008 indictment on charges of criminal contempt. A district judge signed the order, hopefully ending the Palestinian activist and community leader's 11-year nightmare with the U.S. security state.

Al-Arian, a former University of South Florida mechanical engineering professor and outspoken opponent of Israel's crimes against the Palestinians, was arrested in 2003 on trumped-up charges that he provided supposed "material support" to terrorists--the original charges included 17 counts of "racketeering" and support for a foreign terrorist organization, based on the USA PATRIOT Act.

The government's investigation of Al-Arian began well before 9/11, but the Feds got what they needed for an indictment with the passage of the Patriot Act a month after the September 11. Federal law enforcement not only gained new powers of surveillance, but the bar was lowered on what was considered evidence of "providing material support for a foreign terrorist organization."

Dr. Sami al-Arian attending a recent court date
Dr. Sami al-Arian attending a recent court date

When Al-Arian was arrested, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft bragged at a press conference that the FBI had captured "the major North American financier for terrorism in the Middle East." The fact that Al-Arian was a college professor and community leader living in Florida only fanned the flames of Islamophobia and re-enforced the myth that terrorists were lurking around every corner.

Before the trial, officials sent Al-Arian to a SuperMax prison where he endured isolation conditions on 24/7 lockdown; was denied family visits; and was chained whenever he was out of his cell, even to meet with his lawyers. He was harassed by guards, who were convinced that Al-Arian was the "next bin Laden," according to the propaganda being put out by the Bush administration.

During the trial, which spanned six months, the prosecution brought in "witnesses" from Israel who testified about incidents that had absolutely no connection to Al-Arian. In 2006, the Florida jury refused to find Al-Arian guilty of any charges, and acquitted him altogether of eight charges, including the most serious ones--it deadlocked on nine others.

IN THE hope of ending his ordeal--which had already cost the Al-Arians legal fees of more than $1 million, and which federal prosecutors promised to continue with a lengthy retrial, during which Al-Arian would remain in prison--Al-Arian agreed to plead guilty to a single count of one of the less serious charges. In exchange, he was supposed to get a 57-month sentence, most of which he had already served, followed by voluntary deportation by April 2007.

But the U.S. government had other plans. Just before his sentence was up, a federal prosecutor in Alexandria, Va., served Al-Arian with a subpoena, calling him before a grand jury to testify about Muslim groups in Virginia and their alleged ties to terrorism. This violated his previous plea deal--but Al-Arian was transferred anyway to a Virginia prison, where the Feds tried to force him to testify as a material witness against another Muslim charity. He refused, and 18 months were added to his sentence.

The federal government had Al-Arian in a trap. If he said yes to testifying, he would have given prosecutors the opportunity to charge him with perjury. Saying no meant he faced both civil and criminal contempt charges. Al-Arian spent much of 2007 in jail.

In that Virginia prison, Al-Arian was again subjugated to brutal and racist treatment by guards. To get a sense of the racism he faced, consider the words of Assistant U.S. Attorney Gordon Kromberg, the man who got Al-Arian shipped to Virginia, when Al-Arian requested the transfer not take place during the Muslim religious holidays of Ramadan: "If [Muslims] can kill each other during Ramadan, they can appear before the grand jury, all they can't do is eat before sunset. I believe Mr. Al-Arian's request is part of the attempted Islamization [sic] of the American Justice System."

But if the Feds thought Al-Arian would break under the pressure of these abominable conditions, they were wrong. Instead, he went on two hunger strikes to protest the charges against him and the conditions in prison. During the first hunger strike in 2007, he lost more than 50 pounds, and only called it off at the urging of his family.

He began a second hunger strike in April 2008, after another grand-jury subpoena was issued. As Al-Arian said in a statement released through his family at the time: "When the system is manipulated by the powerful and tolerates abuses against the minorities or the weak members of society, the government not only loses its moral authority and betrays future generations, but will also be condemned by history."

In 2008, Al-Arian was finally released on house arrest into his family's custody while awaiting trial. But since that time, he remained in a limbo--prosecutors refused to drop the case, but also refused to take it to trial. Perhaps the Justice Department was afraid of getting the same result as the original Florida trial, where jurors didn't blindly go along with the persecution of Al-Arian.

AL-ARIAN'S fearless activism inside prison and his supporters' activism outside played a key role in keeping his case in the national spotlight and drawing attention to how the Patriot Act has been used to persecute Muslims and Arab Americans, and criminalize dissent in general.

Despite everything the Justice Department did to witch-hunt and vilify him, Al-Arian's case became a cause to support for tens of the thousands of people across the country. A solidarity campaign, led by the Al-Arian family and the Tampa Bay Coalition for Justice and Peace, helped to publicize the case from the start. With its release in 2007, activists organized screenings of the film USA vs. Al-Arian, which exposes the many flaws in the case against Al-Arian, the nightmare faced by his family, and the political motivations behind the Justice Department's attack.

The fact that the Justice Department has finally been forced to back down on its decades-long assault on Al-Arian represents an important defeat for the U.S. government's crusade to roll over the rights of Arabs and Muslims in the name of fighting a "war on terror." As Al-Arian's attorney Jonathan Turley wrote in a statement after the dismissal:

This case remains one of the most troubling chapters in this nation's crackdown after 9-11. Despite the jury verdict and the agreement reached to allow Dr. Al-Arian to leave the country, the Justice Department continued to fight for his incarceration and for a trial in this case. It will remain one of the most disturbing cases of my career in terms of the actions taken by our government.

Activists will have to keep their eyes on the case of Sami Al-Arian to make sure that justice is done. As the long history of this battle demonstrates, there are no limits that the federal government recognizes in its post-9/11 witch hunt. Fighting for Sami Al-Arian is a way to show our solidarity with the thousands of other Arabs and Muslim who have also been caught up in the snare of the racist U.S. "security" state.

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