One of More Chilling Post-9/11 Political Prosecutions, Case of Sami Al-Arian, Appears to Have Ended

Sami Al-Arian

A political prosecution against a Palestinian-American activist and University of South Florida professor, which began in February 2003, appeared to come to an end on June 27 as the United States government announced it was dropping all charges against him.

Sami Al-Arian’s family declared in a statement, “We are glad that the government has finally decided to drop the charges.”

“It has been a long and difficult 11 years for our family in what has ultimately been shown to be a political case,” they added. “We are relieved that this ordeal finally appears to be at an end. We hope that today’s events bring to a conclusion the government’s pursuit of Dr. Al-Arian and that he can finally be able to resume his life with his family in freedom.”

Al-Arian’s attorney, Jonathan Turley, wrote, “I have represented Dr. Al-Arian for roughly eight years as we fought for his deportation and the dismissal of these charges. We have litigated the case from the 11th Circuit to the 4th Circuit to the Supreme Court and back again. It has been a long and difficult road for the Al-Arian family.”

On February 20, 2003, Attorney General John Ashcroft announced in a press conference that Al-Arian and “seven co-conspirators” were “in the leadership of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad,” a “US government designated foreign terrorist organization, committed suicide bombings and violent jihad activities,” and charged with terrorism-related crimes.

“As the indictment details,” Ashcroft stated, “the Palestinian Islamic Jihad is responsible for the murder of over 100 innocent people in Israel and the Occupied Territories, including at least two young Americans, Alisa Flatow, age 20, and Shoshana Ben-Yishai, age 16. FBI agents have arrested the four defendants who are located in the United States, including the North American leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Sami Al-Arian. Searches also are underway in six locations in the Tampa area and one location in Illinois.”

One of More Chilling Post-9/11 Political Prosecutions, Case of Sami Al-Arian, Appears to Have Ended

Sami Al-Arian

A political prosecution against a Palestinian-American activist and University of South Florida professor, which began in February 2003, appeared to come to an end on June 27 as the United States government announced it was dropping all charges against him.

Sami Al-Arian’s family declared in a statement, “We are glad that the government has finally decided to drop the charges.”

“It has been a long and difficult 11 years for our family in what has ultimately been shown to be a political case,” they added. “We are relieved that this ordeal finally appears to be at an end. We hope that today’s events bring to a conclusion the government’s pursuit of Dr. Al-Arian and that he can finally be able to resume his life with his family in freedom.”

Al-Arian’s attorney, Jonathan Turley, wrote, “I have represented Dr. Al-Arian for roughly eight years as we fought for his deportation and the dismissal of these charges. We have litigated the case from the 11th Circuit to the 4th Circuit to the Supreme Court and back again. It has been a long and difficult road for the Al-Arian family.”

On February 20, 2003, Attorney General John Ashcroft announced in a press conference that Al-Arian and “seven co-conspirators” were “in the leadership of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad,” a “US government designated foreign terrorist organization, committed suicide bombings and violent jihad activities,” and charged with terrorism-related crimes.

“As the indictment details,” Ashcroft stated, “the Palestinian Islamic Jihad is responsible for the murder of over 100 innocent people in Israel and the Occupied Territories, including at least two young Americans, Alisa Flatow, age 20, and Shoshana Ben-Yishai, age 16. FBI agents have arrested the four defendants who are located in the United States, including the North American leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Sami Al-Arian. Searches also are underway in six locations in the Tampa area and one location in Illinois.”

A fifty count indictment, he said, showed the “eight defendants” had operated a “racketeering enterprise from 1984 until the present that supported numerous violent terrorist activities associated with the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.”

“Our record on terrorist support networks is clear: We will hunt down the suppliers of terrorist money, we will shut down these sources, and we will ensure that both terrorists and their financiers meet the same, swift, certain justice of the United States of America,” Ashcroft boasted.

For The Nation, Laila Al-Arian, his daughter, described how the government’s pursuit brought fear and paranoia to an entire Muslim community:

As the government built its case against my father, FBI agents interrogated one Muslim family after another. Overwhelming fear pervaded the community. My father, a pillar of that community, had founded and run an Islamic school near the mosque where he also led prayers. After the arrest, my mother, Nahla, was asked to withdraw my younger siblings from the school that she and my father had worked so hard to build. Returning for a visit, my mother was asked what she was doing there. Shopping for groceries, she saw a longtime friend turn her back to avoid talking to her. “It was shocking and depressing,” my mother recalls.

Sami Al-Arian was held in pre-trial detention at the Coleman Federal Correctional Complex in Florida and subjected to conditions of solitary confinement.

Amnesty International wrote a letter to the Federal Bureau of Prisons calling the conditions of his imprisonment “gratuitously punitive” and raising concerns about: how his hands were always shackled behind his back forcing him to bend forward and carry papers on his back when meeting with his attorney; how he was subject to routine strip searches; how he was denied access to pencils and paper.

In December 2005, a Tampa jury declined to find Al-Arian guilty of any of the 50 counts he faced. He was found not guilty of “conspiring to kill people overseas” and other “terrorist support, perjury and immigration violations.”

The jury, according to the New York Times, was “deadlocked on the remaining nine counts against him after deliberating for 13 days, and it did not return any guilty verdicts against the three other defendants in the case.”

Al-Arian had been the subject of a federal investigation by the FBI since 1995 and the government had “some 20,000 hours of taped conversations” from wiretaps on him and his associates. The government had twenty-one witnesses from Israel testify against him. Yet, the government still was unable to come up with evidence that would convince the jury that he had financed and directed terrorist attacks in Israel, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

It was a moment for his family to celebrate. Ahmed Bedier, director of the Tampa chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) declared, “This was a very important case for us in that it tested both the Patriot Act and the right to political activity.

“The jury is sending a statement that even in post-9/11 America, the justice system works, the burden of proof is on the prosecution, and political association—while it may be unpopular to associate oneself with controversial views—is still not illegal in this country.”

This statement should have ended the government’s political prosecution, but the statement from the jury was too embarrassing. The Justice Department intended to continue its pursuit and retry him on the unresolved counts. That prompted Al-Arian to attempt to hammer out a plea deal that would bring this to an end. (more…)