Persecution without end

April 25, 2008

Nicole Colson reports on the federal government's ongoing witch-hunt against Sami Al-Arian.

SAMI AL-ARIAN was supposed to have been released from prison April 11 after more than five years behind bars. Instead, the former University of South Florida professor is facing another extension of his incarceration--and has been forced to take desperate action in protest.

In March, Al-Arian began a new hunger strike, his third since he was first imprisoned in February 2003. As Socialist Worker went to press, he was on day 50 with no food and had reportedly lost more than 34 pounds.

According to his daughter, journalist Laila Al-Arian, the latest hunger strike is "in protest against what the Department of Justice is doing to him. His scheduled release date is April 11, but they're trying to ensnare him in a whole other trial, just to increase his prison time, even though he's already spent five years in detention. They're trying to keep him locked up indefinitely."

The government's 17 original charges against Al-Arian accused him of using a think tank and a Muslim school and charity as a cover for raising funds to finance "terrorism." In 2006, after a lengthy trial, a Florida jury acquitted Al-Arian of the eight most serious charges and deadlocked on the rest, with the jury favoring acquittal by a 10-2 margin.

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

But the government kept Al-Arian in prison, threatening him with a retrial. Rather than face this, Al-Arian agreed to plead guilty to a single count of the least serious charge against him, in exchange for a minor additional sentence and voluntary deportation.

"The first trial cost us $1 million in legal fees," said Laila Al-Arian. "It was very, very exhausting: financially, physically, emotionally. We just really didn't want to go through that nightmare again. Also, we would have had to hire new lawyers, because our lawyers were already committed to other cases."

But rather than release Al-Arian as promised after he served his sentence, Gordon Kromberg, the assistant U.S. attorney for the eastern district of Virginia, had Al-Arian transferred to try to compel his testimony in an investigation into a Muslim charity in that state--in defiance of an agreement with Florida prosecutors, recorded in court transcripts, that he would be exempt from future testimony.

Kromberg has reportedly made anti-Muslim statements in the past. According to Al-Arian attorney Jack Fernandez, when Fernandez requested that Al-Arian's 2006 transfer to Virginian be delayed until after the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, Kromberg responded that if Muslims "can kill each other during Ramadan, they can appear before the grand jury. All they can't do is eat before sunset."

What you can do

Contact Hampton Roads Regional Jail at 757-488-7500 and request that Dr. Al-Arian to be treated humanely and given adequate medical attention.

Write letters calling for justice to the Honorable Judge Gerald Lee, U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, 401 Courthouse Square, Alexandria, VA 22314; or to Attorney General Michael Mukasey, U.S. Department of Justice, 950 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20530-0001.

The documentary film USA v. Al-Arian can be viewed on the Internet at the LinkTV Web site.

Visit the Free Sami Al-Arian Web site to make a donation to Dr. Al-Arian's legal defense, get regular updates about his hunger strike and learn more about what you can do to protest his continued imprisonment.

The courts have so far sided with Kromberg that Al-Arian should testify. Al-Arian, however, views such testimony as a trap--since others who testified in similar cases were immediately charged with perjury. Instead, by refusing to cooperate, Al-Arian has been held in contempt. He now faces a new indictment on criminal contempt charges, which could lead to an open-ended jail sentence.

"We really thought that once he signed that plea agreement, everything would be over," said Laila Al-Arian. "But, we realized later that you can't trust the Department of Justice to keep its promise, because in our case, the plea agreement turned out to be a farce, a total lie. If the prosecutors are not going to keep their word, then why would any defendant in history ever choose to sign a plea agreement?...

"It's almost like you're offered two poisons, and you have to choose one: The first is that if he testifies in front of the grand jury they're trying to bring him in front of, in an unrelated case, they're going to charge him with perjury; and, if he chooses not to testify, then he'll be charged with criminal contempt. So either way, he'll be imprisoned more."

BEYOND IMPRISONMENT alone, Al-Arian has endured at various times during his confinement virtual round-the-clock lockdown, unsanitary cell conditions, severe restrictions on his access to telephones and writing materials, and physical and verbal abuse at the hands of guards.

According to the Tampa Bay Coalition for Justice and Peace, a support group working for his release, Al-Arian, now under the jurisdiction of immigration authorities, was recently moved to the Hampton Roads Regional Jail in Portsmouth, Va.

"Since arriving at the facility, he has been subjected to numerous, shocking abuses, even worse than those he experienced at a detention center in Maryland," read an alert issued by the group. "After placing him on suicide watch, prison guards confiscated all of Dr. Al-Arian's belongings.

"His clothing, including undergarments, were taken away, and he was given only a thin hospital gown to wear in the cold prison. Although Dr. Al-Arian suffers from weak eyesight, his eyeglasses were also taken away. His cell contains no bed sheets, blankets or pillows, only a hard metal bed frame beneath a one-inch mattress.

"Furthermore, guards took his drinking cup needed to drink water, which is critical during his hunger strike. Further, Dr. Al-Arian was also told that he would only be given one telephone call every 15 days, and that he would not be allowed any attorney calls. Even if he were to be given regular calls, a single call from Hampton Roads Regional Jail costs $25...

"Prior to his transfer, Dr. Al-Arian was promised by immigration officials that he would not be subjected to more humiliating and abusive treatment at the new facility. These horrendous conditions reflect a gross negligence on the part of the authorities at the Hampton Roads Regional Jail and a deliberate attempt to break Dr. Al-Arian's will through this cruel and punitive treatment. By subjecting him to these continuous abuses, they have attacked his basic dignity and jeopardized his health to an alarming degree."

As Laila Al-Arian pointed out, "He's getting much weaker each day...His spirits are always strong, which keeps us strong, but he really has had it with these tactics by the Department of Justice. Five years of his life were already stolen from him and his family. Enough is enough.

"I think he really feels like going on this hunger strike is the only thing in his power to do to protest this grave injustice. He's just taking it day by day. I think he's very determined to continue on with the hunger strike, just as other political prisoners all over the world have done."

In the initial days of this hunger strike, Al-Arian had also been refusing water. But prison officials have been slow to offer medical treatment.

"Frankly, we're wondering why they have this approach," his daughter said. "Last year, he went 60 days without eating, taking only water for two months. The human body can only handle so much. They never force-fed him. They never offered him any kind of proper treatment. It's very scary for us as his family."

NOW, ACCORDING to Laila, the Al-Arian family is trying to support Sami while renewing calls for his release. "We're fed up with this," she said. "It really feels like Groundhog Day--the same statements that were being released last year during the hunger strike are being released this year. There's still a media blackout on his case...

"Very few media outlets are really giving it the attention it really deserves, with the exception of your paper, Democracy Now! and a few other small outlets here and there. I think it's a determined decision to not cover this case, so that's frustrating for us."

Despite the abuse he's been subjected to, Sami Al-Arian has vowed not to give up. In a statement recorded on March 31 from prison, he said, "My case, dear sisters and brothers, represents a principled stand for all the sacred rights enshrined in the Bill of Rights in the Constitution and the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. It's in defense of the integrity of our system of justice.

"After spending more than five years in 10 different prisons across the United States, and despite a six-month trial with 80 witnesses, including 21 from Israel, 12 average Americans stood firm and refused to convict innocent people of any count of over 100 charges leveled at them by the most powerful government in history.

"No wonder people have been asking, 'Where is justice?' Justice can't be served when people are targeted because of their beliefs and politics...Justice can't be served when those who are supposed to administer it abuse it in order to exact revenge. Justice can't be served when employing fear mongering and fear tactics by exploiting a national tragedy to silence the voices of a vulnerable and weak minority in our society."

For Laila Al-Arian, the persistent attack by the government on her father is a symptom of the "war on terror"--including the demonization of Arabs and Muslims and the shredding of civil liberties after the September 11 attacks.

"I think it just shows that the Bush administration is so misguided and hateful of people who are Arab and Muslim," she said. "It doesn't matter who you are or what you stand for. In their eyes, all Arabs and all Muslims are the same: they're the enemy. I think they've declared Islam and Muslims as the enemy.

"It's very clear in my father's case. He is a very peaceful and moderate person. His only crime was exercising his First Amendment rights. For that, he was punished--silenced by the Bush administration, which has made enemies out of people who should have been their friends, if they truly were interested in bridging the gap between the Muslim world and the U.S. My father would have been that perfect bridge, but instead they decided to burn their bridges and lock up innocent people...

"I think this case is not just about us. It's not just about Muslims or Arabs or Palestinians. It's about Americans. If this could happen to my father, it could happen to anyone."

Further Reading

From the archives