Sarah Shields teaches Middle East history at UNC/Chapel Hill.
“Has anyone told you that you look like Gandhi?” my companion asked Professor Sami al-Arian. Al-Arian was sitting behind a plastic wall, wearing striped prison clothes and speaking into two telephones.
It was easy not only to see the resemblance, but also to feel it. Dr. al-Arian has a strikingly similar smile, Gandhi-like eyes and the same lean frame as he finished the first week of his hunger strike. More remarkable, after being both prosecuted and persecuted, he maintains his confidence in the rule of law, the American system of justice and the basic goodness of his persecutors. And he has come through it all with his good nature and sense of humor, despite his weakening condition.
Dr. Sami al-Arian has now spent four years in jail, three of those in solitary confinement while awaiting trial. In December 2005, despite years to prepare the case against him, and an estimated $80 million dollars of American tax money to pursue it, Dr. al-Arian was acquitted of eight of the 17 charges against him, including conspiracy to commit racketeering, conspiracy to murder and maim people abroad, conspiracy to support a foreign terrorist organization (two counts), mail fraud (two counts) and obstruction of justice (two counts). After agreeing in a plea bargain to a single charge in exchange for being released and deported, more than a year after his acquittal he is still imprisoned. We visited him at Northern Neck Regional Jail in Warsaw, Virginia, where he is being held for contempt of court for refusing to testify in an unrelated matter.
The United States government was deeply embarrassed after this acquittal in a high-profile trial that was to have been a showcase for the USA PATRIOT Act. After being imprisoned under conditions condemned by Amnesty International, in lock-down 23 hours a day for 37 months before his trial, regularly shackled and strip-searched, denied religious services, refused adequate access to the documents necessary to prepare his defense (tens of thousands of pages of transcripts from years of electronic surveillance), after being brought into the courtroom heavily shackled and treated as a terrorist, al-Arian was gracious in victory.
For Sami al-Arian, the jury’s verdict reinforced the confidence he had always held in both the United States and her system of justice. Addressing the court, he thanked his attorneys and his adopted country:
This process, your Honor, affirmed my belief in the true meaning of a democratic society, in which the independence of the judiciary, the integrity of the jury system and the system of checks and balances are upheld, despite intense political and public pressures ... It's also my belief that an impartial and conscientious jury, as well as principled judicial rulings that uphold the values of the constitution, are the real vehicles that win the hearts and minds of people across the globe, especially in the Arab and Muslim world.
The American Civil Liberties Union wrote to the government arguing that a retrying Dr. Al-Arian “following the recent acquittal of all serious charges lodged against him would appear to be pointless and vindictive.”
As the government refused to preclude a retrial, and with exhausted attorneys and inadequate funds to pursue a defense against the remaining counts (on which two jurors remained unconvinced), the defendant decided to conclude a plea deal. Dr. Al-Arian pled guilty to one of the remaining charges against him solely in order to be finished with his ordeal. He agreed to deportation in return for the termination of all legal proceedings against him, and what Al-Arian believed was a good-faith commitment relieving him of the obligation to testify against others.
U.S. District Judge James Moody seemed unswayed even by the arguments of the prosecutors, and sentenced Dr. al-Arian to another 11 months jail, to be completed in April 2007. But it seems the government is unwilling to carry out this agreement.
In October 2006 U.S. Attorney Gordon Kromberg asked a grand jury to subpoena Professor al-Arian to testify in a case involving a Muslim think-tank. Pointing out that testifying had been explicitly deleted from the plea bargain, with the specific consent of the prosecutors in Florida, he refused. As he explained it to us last week, his refusal comes from two places. First, he considers it inconsistent with his faith and his values to testify. Second, he anticipates that any testimony would be used to create new “facts” to re-arrest him. His fear seems well-founded. At a hearing in 2000, a government attorney asked whether Dr. al-Arian believed that Islam could only be liberated through violence. Professor al-Arian’s response, of course, was “No.”
One of the 17 counts against him in 2003 was perjury: The government contends he lied when responding that violence was not required to liberate Islam.
Responding to being placed in civil contempt, al-Arian pointed out that he had “no contempt whatsoever for this honorable court, but all the respect in the world for it.” It seems, instead, that it is the government that has contempt for the legal system al-Arian has relied upon and admired for decades. Instead of respecting the plea agreement, Kromberg referred to it as a “bonanza.” Despite having been found guilty of nothing by a U.S. court, Judge Moody and Kromberg persist in their belief in al-Arian’s culpability. It appears that Kromberg’s attitude is based in part on Sami al-Arian’s religion.
Attorney Jack Fernandez requested that Kromberg delay al-Arian’s transfer to Virginia until the end of Ramadan. Fernandez quoted Kromberg’s response in an affidavit, "If they 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 of the American justice aystem. I am not going to put off Dr. al-Arian's grand jury appearance just to assist in what is becoming the Islamization of America." Gordon Kromberg has denied a request to recuse himself in this case.
It was both Sami al-Arian’s religious faith, and his faith in our system of government that got him arrested in 2003. Al-Arian actually believes what we say about freedom of worship, and has spent years trying to inform Americans about Islam. Stunned by the events of 9/11, he agreed to talk with Bill O’Reilly about Muslim responses to the tragedy. To his surprise, the FOX News host attacked him , relentlessly interrogating him about an investigation dating back to 1993, in which al-Arian had been found blameless years earlier.
Within days, Professor al-Arian had been fired from the University of South Florida, where he had taught for 15 years, despite his tenure. As opposition mounted, and the American Association of University Professors threatened sanctions against the University of South Florida, the university’s president got the help she needed: the FBI resurrected the old allegations and al-Arian was arrested.
It appears now that, despite being exonerated by a jury of his peers, Sami al-Arian has been found guilty—guilty of being a Muslim and a Palestinian. In the years since 9/11, more and more Muslims and Arabs have been accused of terrorism, their lives put on hold, their families divided, their freedom denied. In the face of new legislation suspending habeus corpus and stripping even U.S. citizens of their rights to a swift and fair trial, Professor al-Arian’s experience is a frightening foreshadowing of the futures of those who would count on American freedoms of religion, speech and dissent.
Dr. al-Arian continues to have faith in our system and in our country. He told the court at his sentencing:
As I leave I harbor no bitterness or resentment. Looking back at my three decades in America, I'm indeed grateful for the opportunities afforded to the son of stateless Palestinian refugees in a foreign country, while denied such opportunity in his country of origin and the countries where he was born or raised. I'm grateful that my five wonderful children were born and raised in a society that provided them with freedom and equal opportunities in order to reach their potential.
Sami al-Arian’s children, and my children, need the American system of justice to prevail. Time is running out for Professor al-Arian as he continues to refuse food to protest the injustice of his continuing imprisonment. Time is running out for justice if Americans refuse to insist on the enforcement of our constitution.