Washington, DC - February 20, 2011
Today marks the eighth anniversary of the arrest of Dr. Sami Al-Arian by U.S. authorities in pre-dawn raid that the professor described in a poem. Throughout the ordeal, Dr. Al-Arian spent over 5 ½ years in prison (3 1/2 years in solitary confinement), and an additional 2½ years under house arrest.
Despite a trial, acquittal, and a subsequent plea agreement, the government continues to pursue Dr. Al-Arian in an effort to punish him and once again jail him, due to his political and religious beliefs in a country that prides itself on the bill of rights that guarantees freedom of beliefs, opinions, and associations.
Many American Muslim families have suffered since the tragic events of September 11, 2001 in the name of the so-called war on terror. It has claimed many innocent casualties, as the government pursued individuals, such as Dr. Al-Arian, based on their thoughts, opinions and beliefs. In other cases the government targeted individuals by manufacturing charges against them as the government planned, financed, and executed the crimes.
Whether it was thought crimes like Dr. Al-Arian's, or manufactured charges, the government employed a tactic called "preemptive persecutions," in which the government reversed the system of justice: first choose the targets then match them with a crime to secure convictions. Although this tactic failed with Dr. Al-Arian, far too many individuals and families have fallen victims to this unconstitutional practice.
Today Americans of good conscience must show concern by questioning these underhanded tactics used by the government. They must reject the practice of targeting individuals like Dr. Al-Arian and hundreds of others, because of their religious or political beliefs.
On this day we need to renew our commitment to the constitutional promise of the bill of rights and its protections of civil rights, political freedoms, and equal justice.
On Feb. 20, 2003, former Attorney General John Ashcroft declared in a nationally televised news conference, carried on all major media outlets, that Dr. Al-Arian was one of the most dangerous people in the world.
Based on these assertions, Dr. Al-Arian was held in solitary confinement for 43 months during and after his trial, despite the fact that he had never waived his right to a speedy trial. Amnesty International protested the conditions of his detention, calling them "gratuitously punitive."
No Guilty Verdicts
On Dec. 6, 2005, a Florida jury acquitted Dr. Al-Arian on eight counts, and deadlocked 10-2 in favor of acquittal on the remaining nine counts, leading Time magazine to declare the case "one of the Justice Department's most embarrassing legal setbacks since 9/11."
While the government presented 80 witnesses including 21 from Israel, Dr. Al-Arian rested his case without calling a single witness basing his defense on the first amendment. Indeed, much of the government's evidence presented to the jury during the six-month trial were speeches Dr. Al-Arian delivered, lectures he presented, articles he wrote, magazines he edited, books he owned, conferences he convened, rallies he attended, interviews he gave, news he heard, and websites he never even accessed.
In fact, several websites, presented to the jury as evidence, were created by anonymous individuals, after his arrest, while he was awaiting trial in solitary confinement in a federal prison. It was therefore no surprise that, with almost 100 counts between all defendants, the jury did not return a single guilty verdict on any count. Two other defendants were totally acquitted on all counts.
A Plea Deal to End Persecution
In April 2006, in an effort to spare his family another long, financially draining, and excruciating trial, Dr. Al-Arian pleaded guilty to violating a 1995 presidential executive order, by providing immigration services in the 1990s to persons associated with the PIJ, a Palestinian organization listed on the U.S. forbidden organizations (terrorist) list. In return, he agreed to immediate deportation from the U.S. despite more than three decades residing in the country. The details of the plea deal illustrated the true nature of the political persecution of this case.
The services admitted in the plea deal were: 1) hiring a lawyer for his brother-in-law during his immigration battle in the late 1990s; 2) sponsoring a Palestinian historian in 1994 to conduct research in the U.S.; and 3) withholding information from a U.S. journalist during a 1995 interview. There was no evidence or admission in the plea deal that showed any illegal financial transactions or material support. Although Dr. Al-Arian was promised a prompt release in exchange for his plea, the U.S. government later admitted that, at the time the plea deal was signed in 2006, federal prosecutors were secretly preparing to call Dr. Al-Arian before a grand jury in Virginia, in a sign of their complete disregard for the overarching purpose of the plea agreement, which was to end any and all business between Dr. Al-Arian and the U.S. government.
In what many observers believed was an attempt to seek retribution for the colossal defeat of the government's case in Florida, Dr. Al-Arian was called to testify before a federal grand jury in the Eastern District of Virginia (EDVA) in Alexandria three times between the fall of 2006 and the spring of 2008. The call to the grand jury was a classic prosecutorial trap in which agreeing to testify would result in a charge of perjury, while a refusal to testify would result in a charge of contempt of court. When Dr. Al-Arian refused to testify, invoking his right under the plea deal, he was held for over a year on civil contempt charges. In June 2008, he was charged with criminal contempt.
After five and a half years in prison, most of which was served under deplorable conditions in solitary confinement, and during which Dr. Al-Arian underwent three hunger-strikes that lasted several months requiring hospitalization, Dr. Al-Arian was released in September 2008 under house arrest, where he has spent the last 25 months awaiting the outcome of the case.
In its March 2009 filing, the government made several admissions regarding the plea deal, namely, they affirmed its essence of non-cooperation, but still argued that it should not be taken into account.
Moreover,the EDVA prosecutors (as admitted in the government filing) began the process to compel Dr. Al-Arian's testimony at the same time the DOJ was negotiating with his attorneys. This conduct prompted Judge Leonie Brinkema of the EDVA, in a Feb. 2009 hearing, to call into question the DOJ's integrity, stating "I think the integrity of the Justice Department and the integrity of the criminal justice plea bargaining process is too significant to just let it die on the vine given the nature of the record before this Court."
In an earlier hearing held in Tampa, Florida in Nov. 2006, Florida prosecutor Terry Zitek, stated in no uncertain terms that the cooperation clause was deliberately removed: "It's not there, and we're [the government] not...complaining that the defendant Al-Arian has refused to cooperate."
Furthermore,lead government prosecutor Gordon Kromberg of the EDVA, conceded in a court hearing on Feb. 5, 2009, that the government had in fact removed the cooperation clause from the plea bargain upon the insistence of Dr. Al-Arian. But Mr. Kromberg tried to argue that the EDVA was not bound by the terms of the agreement. However, Judge Brinkema pointed out that the plea agreement was concluded with the DOJ as a whole, and that the DOJ could not be allowed to "compartmentalize itself," and that the understanding of the plea agreement is indeed "at the heart of the case."
This undisputed fact raised a number of questions about the government's conduct in the case, including: Why would the Florida prosecutors remove the cooperation clause from the plea agreement unless there was a clear promise that Dr. Al-Arian would not be compelled to cooperate or testify? Dr. Al-Arian's then attorneys submitted affidavits saying that cooperation with the government was non-negotiable.
(Click here for the first declaration and here for the second by Dr. Al-Arian's attorneys.)
After the government defied the judge three times by refusing to provide information regarding the plea negotiations, Judge Brinkema ruled in March 2009 in favor of the defense request to file a motion to dismiss the charges against Dr. Al-Arian. Her decision at the time had followed the new revelation that the Florida prosecutors were opposed to the efforts by the Virginia prosecutors to call Dr. Al-Arian to testify. After the parties briefed the court in April 2009, Judge Brinkema issued an order stating that she would rule in the future without further hearings.
The government motion for a new hearing is to force the judge to rule on the pending dismissal motion. Judge Brinkema cancelled the hearing and indicated that she would rule soon. Meanwhile, Dr. Al-Arian has been under house arrest for almost 30 months (since Sept. 2, 2008.)
The Persecution of Dr. Al-Arian on Film
In 2007, Norwegian filmmakers released a documentary film entitled USA vs. Al-Arian. The award-winning film chronicles the story of Dr. Al-Arian and his family
during and after his Florida trial, illustrating the political nature of his prosecution and the state of the U.S. justice system under the Patriot Act. Since 2003, Dr. Al-Arian's case has attracted the interest of major civil liberties and human rights organizations in the U.S. and around the world. Peter Erlinder, a law professor, and former president of the National Lawyers Guild, said: "The prosecution of Dr. Al-Arian was a blatant attempt to silence political speech and dissent in the aftermath of the 9/11 tragedy. The nature of the political persecution of this case has been demonstrated throughout all its aspects, not only during the trial and the never-ending right-wing media onslaught, but also after the stunning defeat of the government in 2005, and its ill-advised abuse of the grand jury system thereafter."
Striving for Justice
In August 2008, the late Howard Zinn declared: "I thought that [Dr. Al-Arian's case] was an outrageous violation of human rights, both from a constitutional point of view and as a simple test of justice." Moreover,
Dr. Mel Underbakke of Friends of Human Rights, who has traveled the country screening the documentary and educating the public about the dangers of the Patriot Act, said: "The unjust persecution of Dr. Al-Arian should concern all Americans. History has taught us that when the rights of the minority are violated by the government for political purposes, then the rights of all Americans would be eroded. That's why thousands of civil libertarians and human rights activists in the U.S. and around the world, have been mortified by the injustice suffered by Dr. Al-Arian and his family and have rallied in their defense."
When asked about how her father was doing during his house arrest, Laila Al-Arian, a journalist, said: "Our family is very grateful to have been with him since his release. He's been a guiding influence in our lives. He is also most appreciative of the tremendous support he's been receiving nationwide and around the world."
A Voice for Freedom and Dialogue
Dr. Al-Arian reiterated his strong belief in the importance of dialogue and education in the only public speech he has given since his release on home confinement, delivered in June 2009 through Skype to the Global Forum on Freedom of Expression in Norway.
He said: "Despite my imprisonmnent and experience, my faith in dialogue and commitment to freedom of expression, will never waiver. It's been my life long passion. This experience taught us that when the American people are educated and empowered with truth, they respond positively and display a sense of fairness. I firmly believe that through education and civil engagement people change. Little by little they will understand the plight of the Palestinians and the importance of defending civil liberties and human rights. Increasingly, people realize that no democracy can survive at the altar of sacrificing free speech or dissent."
He continued: " Our charge today is to pledge to defend the rights of our most vulnerable members of our world community: the tens of thousands of prisoners of conscience around the world, those who are under occupation or under siege, the millions terrorized by dictators and warlords, the poor and the sick, the uneducated and the exploited, the children, the abused women, and the elderly. Each one of these classes of people needs a voice and an advocate. They need to gain their freedom to realize a life of dignity and peace. So whether we recognize it or not, we are at the forefront of this struggle for their freedom. Let your collective conscience speak on their behalf." He then concluded: "One cannot achieve peace without realizing justice, realize justice without seeking out the truth, seek out the truth without practicing freedom. So living and thinking free is the root of achieving peace in our world."
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