The U.S. Persecution of Sami Al-Arian

The neocon exploitation of the 9/11 attacks led to the disastrous Iraq War but  also unleashed anti-Muslim bigotry within the American political/media system and even within the U.S. courts, as the ugly persecution of Sami Al-Arian reveals, reports Lawrence Davidson.

By Lawrence Davidson

Scattered throughout the ranks of U.S. federal prosecutors and judges there have always been men and women who are unwilling to make a distinction between their own biases and the rules of evidence that are designed to keep the system focused on the goal of justice.

Such closed-minded individuals, embedded in the system, can find themselves set free to act out their prejudices by special circumstances. One might think back to the “hanging judges” who appeared here and there on the American frontier in the Nineteenth Century. Being among the few enforcers of law and order in an otherwise anarchic environment, they indulged their fantasies of playing the wrathful god.

Sami Al-Arian and his two children. (Photo credit: Muslimmatters.org)

Sami Al-Arian and his two children. (Photo credit: Muslimmatters.org)

The “War on Terror” has likewise created a special circumstance that has liberated Justice Department dogmatists: Islamophobes, Zionists, neoconservatives and others who fancy themselves on a special mission to protect the nation from evil and conspiratorial forces. And, as with the hanging judges before them, the result has been an enhanced possibility not of justice, but rather of the miscarriage of justice.

In the past 20 years, one of the most notable victims of doctrinaire judges and prosecutors has been Sami Al-Arian, the son of Palestinian-refugee parents who came to the United States in 1975 to attend university and earned his degree in computer systems engineering. Eventually he earned a Ph.D. and obtained a tenure-track position at the University of South Florida.

Not only did Al-Arian become a prominent professor, winning several teaching awards, but he also became a community activist, defending the civil liberties of minority groups, particularly Muslim Americans. During the Clinton administration he was an active campaigner against the Justice Department’s pre-9/11 use of “secret evidence” to hold people in jail indefinitely. He also actively and publicly supported the right of Palestinians to resist Israeli oppression.

At some point in the mid-1990s what may have been a coordinated effort to ruin Dr. Al-Arian developed among neoconservative and Zionist elements. Steven Emerson, a man who has made his living as a faux expert on terrorism and a professional Islamophobe, accused one of Al-Arian’s organizations, the World and Islam Studies Enterprise, of being a “terrorist front.”

This accusation proved to be baseless, but it nonetheless led other Islamophobe radicals to focus on Al-Arian. Some of these people resided within the Justice Department and the FBI, and they went on a fishing expedition looking for alleged connections between Al-Arian and a recently designated “terrorist organization” called the Palestine Islamic Jihad (PIJ). [For more on Steven Emerson, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Unmasking an October Surprise Debunker.”]

Backing Bush

During the 2000 presidential election Al-Arian became a prominent figure in national politics as it played out in Florida. His major concern was the government’s use of secret evidence, and it was George W. Bush who promised to rein in the practice. Therefore, Al-Arian backed Bush in the election. His trust in this regard proved horribly misplaced.

On Sept. 26, 2001, Bill O’Reilly invited Al-Arian onto his TV show ostensibly to discuss Arab-American reactions to the 9/11 attacks. It was a trap. O’Reilly immediately asked Al-Arian if he had said “Jihad is our path. Victory to Islam. Death to Israel” at a rally 13 years before (in 1988). Though Al-Arian tried to explain that it was a reference to his support for Palestinian resistance against apartheid policies in Israel, O’Reilly proclaimed that the CIA should watch Al-Arian from now on.

Almost at once Al-Arian started to receive death threats. At this point the University of South Florida placed him on administrative leave. He would eventually be fired by the University.

The O’Reilly interview may have been a public relations booster for the ongoing Justice Department investigation mentioned above. That lasted until September 2003, when Al-Arian and three others were indicted on 25 counts of “racketeering” for the PIJ.

The Bush administration’s Attorney General John Ashcroft went on television to extol the indictment as a great blow against terrorism (thus confusing an indictment with a conviction) that was made possible by the extensive powers of the USA PATRIOT Act. Among these powers were those that George W. Bush had promised Al-Arian he would rein in.

After a trial that lasted more than five months, Al-Arian was acquitted on eight counts and the jury deadlocked on the remaining 17. When a juror was interviewed after the trial and asked what was lacking in the government’s case he replied, “evidence.”

Nonetheless, the outcome allowed the government to hold Al-Arian pending retrial on those deadlocked counts. The case had a distinctly contrived and corrupt feel to it – the result of Islamophobes turned loose by the events of 9/11 to substitute their own biases for the rules of legal evidence.

In 2006, Dr. Al-Arian was still in prison. His health was deteriorating and the strain on his family (his wife and five children) was great. Given the situation he agreed to a plea bargain agreement whereby he would plead guilty to one count of acting in a fashion that benefited the PIJ. In exchange the other counts would be dismissed by the government.

He would be incarcerated for a relatively short period on the guilty count with time already served counting toward this sentence. In order to secure the plea bargain, Al-Arian also had to agree to be deported upon release.

Once more the government, in this case the judge and the federal prosecutor, proved untrustworthy. Despite the jury verdict, the judge had decided that Sami Al-Arian was a “master manipulator” and “a leader of Palestine Islamic Jihad.” This was exactly what the jury decided the evidence could not substantiate.

However, the judge, moved by emotional convictions, had equated statements on the part of Al-Arian showing understanding of acts of Palestinian resistance with actual material support of those actions. In doing so the judge went beyond the rules of evidence and corrupted the system he was sworn to serve. The judge gave Dr. Al-Arian not the minimum recommended in the plea bargain but the maximum of 57 months for the one count to which he pled guilty.

Then began a series of additional prosecutorial steps involving the issuing of repeated subpoenas demanding that Al-Arian testify at grand jury investigations. This was also in defiance of his plea bargain and so he refused. He was held in civil and later criminal contempt which added substantially to his jail time.

So egregious was the behavior of the prosecutors seeking his testimony that another, more objective judge eventually stepped in and halted the government’s efforts to force Sami Al-Arian’s to appear before grand juries. Dr. Al-Arian was also let out of prison and allowed to live under a liberal form of house arrest at his daughter’s home in Virginia.

His case was held in a kind of legal limbo until just recently, when on June 27 June, prosecutors decided to drop all charges against Al-Arian. One should not think of this as a total victory, for the government still intends to deport Sami Al-Arian.

Sami Al-Arian and his family had to endure 11 years of persecution on the basis of assumptions that were substituted for evidence. In the process, the life of an upright man — devoted to teaching, charitable works and the cause of a persecuted people — was ruined. The people who did this to him simultaneously corrupted the justice system the integrity of which they were sworn to uphold.

Other Victims

While Sami Al-Arian was perhaps the most high-profile of these cases, his was not the only one. Four members of the Holy Land Foundation charity were charged with materially aiding Hamas when, in fact, all the foundation did was supply money to charitable Palestinian organizations which had been accredited by Israel.

It took two trials, one in 2007 and another 2008, for the U.S. government to eke out a conviction on weak evidence that included the testimony of anonymous Israeli witnesses. The Supreme Court refused to interfere with this prima facie unconstitutional procedure.

At present, a Palestinian civil rights activist in Chicago, Rasmea Odeh, is being prosecuted for an alleged immigration fraud for failing to report on her immigration application that 45 years ago, when she was a child,  she was arrested by the Israeli military and briefly held without charge. The same prosecutor who went after the Holy Land Foundation is involved in the prosecution of Odeh.

Times of high tension often result in the lowering of important standards in the application of law. They do so by heightening the fears of the general public, which in turn gives license to bigots embedded in the justice system such as judges and prosecutors who have Islamophobic prejudices, Zionist biases, or neoconservative delusions. All of these motives may come into play in cases such as those mentioned above.

Normally the appeals process should catch and reverse such problematic behavior. However, if the period of public fear is prolonged, the appeals process might also become corrupted by public hysteria and political pressures. It took Sami Al-Arian 11 years to overcome his prosecutorial ordeal and those of the Holy Foundation members and Rasmea Odeh are ongoing.

The last word on this dilemma should go to Sami Al-Arian’s son, Abdullah, who in a recent statement observed, “It’s a sad day when you have to leave America to be free.” Indeed, when dogmatists are in control, none of us are really free.

Lawrence Davidson is a history professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He is the author of Foreign Policy Inc.: Privatizing America’s National Interest; America’s Palestine: Popular and Official Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood; and Islamic Fundamentalism.

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5 comments on “The U.S. Persecution of Sami Al-Arian

  1. Joe Tedesky on said:

    This story breaks my heart. Back in the early days (2001) I then worried about what was going to happen with our justice system. Looking back now proves that the biggest actions implemented by our government would be to destroy our civil liberties, as our rights have now been completely corrupted. We have among other things the Patriot Act. Our police departments with their Swat style troops appear as though they are preparing for WWIII. Boarding a plane has taken on a whole new meaning. Yet, many Americans feel we need this….really!

    By the way, voting for Bush back in 2000 wasn’t as crazy as it seems. Ask the United Steel Workers about that. While your asking, ask the USW & myself how that steel dumping thing worked out for everyone. Bush visited the Irvine Works plant for a burger cookout then left afterwards declaring his hands were tied due to the WTO. Thanks, for your vote. Bush back in 1999 said a lot of things, but once in office did what he had to do while leaving his promises to die on the campaign trail.

  2. Fouad Boussetta on said:

    I really like this website but the article above embarrasses me. Though I’m a left-leaning individual, I agree with O’Reilly that someone who said ““Jihad is our path. Victory to Islam. Death to Israel.” should be put under surveillance. I’m really tired of hearing the “islamophobe” word. Islam is not Buddhism. It’s not Methodism either. It’s a rather right-wing and very problematic totalitarian ideology antagonistic to all other belief systems. It’s normal, sane should I say, to be weary of it. Of course there are abuses that should be prevented. But let’s not fall the one extreme demonization to the other extreme of angelization.

    • mike2112 on said:

      I didn’t think Bill had ever said anything that is correct. You know what else is totalitarian? Our government.The Catholic religion is just as dangerous, all religion should be banned. After all George W Bush used God to start wars killing millions of civilians.

  3. Stephen Flatow on said:

    I testified at Al-Arian’s trial. No one ever accused him of pushing the plunger on bombs set off by Islamic Jihad that resulted in the deaths of Israeli and American citizens. But he did plead guilty to providing material support to Islamic Jihad and agreed to be deported from this country.
    No one following his case can understand why his contempt charge was never resolved.
    In any event, the sooner Al-Arian is deported, America will be a safer place.

  4. Rehmat on said:

    Professor Al-Arian was one of many victims of American Jewish Lobby for doing charity work among Israeli victims in occupied Palestine and Lebanon. He along with other Muslims relief workers was arrested as result of Lobby’s vicious campaign to shut-down of the 32 Muslim charities blacklisted by the Zionist regime.

    http://rehmat1.com/2008/12/04/muslim-charities-targeted-by-zionists/