Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, July 2006, pages 32-33
Sami Al-Arian’s Plea “Bargain”
The Al-Arian Settlement Leaves Bush’s Trophy Case Empty
By Paul Findley
There is no victory to celebrate and no trophy to display. Time magazine got it right: “Federal prosecutors are hailing Florida professor Sami Al-Arian’s plea agreement as a victory in the war on terror. But as with so many triumphant government claims since 9/11, there’s a lot less to celebrate than meets the eye....Given all the buildup, the resolution of the Al-Arian case seems far from a clear-cut victory, and the government’s triumphant tone speaks volume about its less-than-stellar record in federal anti-terror cases.” The shelf on which President George W. Bush hopes to display victory trophies from his ill-conceived PATRIOT Act remains empty.
In his “confession,” Al-Arian actually affirmed, asserted and upheld his support for Palestine and Palestinians. He did not budge an inch from his past pleas for dispossessed and abused people. He did not plead guilty to any act of violence or inducement thereto. He pleaded guilty only to “conspiracy to make or receive contributions of funds, goods or services to or for the benefit of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.”
That line was trumpeted in a release issued to news media by the Justice Department and sent to Members of Congress inquiring about the case settlement. The release did not note that Al-Arian sought only to help private organizations and individuals in nonviolent services—feeding, clothing, housing and educating Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank who suffer abuse at the hands of the occupying Israeli forces.
In a six-month-long trial, the jury did not find Al-Arian guilty on any of the 17 counts of the indictment. They found him not guilty on eight. On the other nine counts, the jury failed to reach a unanimous decision—although, on each, 10 jurors voted for acquittal.
After three years of mostly solitary, sometimes brutal confinement, Sami Al-Arian faced a difficult choice. He could face another costly trial of unpredictable outcome before a different jury, with the possibility of a life sentence at the end. The other possibility was a plea bargain that would protect his dignity and honor but enable him to be set free by a date certain in the near future. The government had already decided that if he ever left prison, he would immediately be deported to another, as yet unidentified, country. As he deliberated, family considerations were dominant. Two young children have never benefited from the presence of Al-Arian in the family circle. For them, their father remains only an infrequent prisoner image behind heavy plate glass and steel bars. Two older children likely will leave home in a few years as adults.
It is reasonable to credit Al-Arian with giving Bush a key to the White House.
Fortunately, his attorney won a plea bargain that retained his stellar standing for human rights, as well as his personal honor and dignity. Unfortunately, the presiding judge, James Moody, in pronouncing sentence, engaged in an astounding, unseemly rant, hurling unwarranted vituperation at the prisoner and, worst of all, ordering him confined an additional 19 months—the maximum allowed by law—before deportation. Judge Moody rejected the recommendation that confinement be limited to time served, a position endorsed by the prosecution. In what seems an echo of this injudicial rhetoric, Al-Arian is now removed from the Tampa jail—where I interviewed him in February—to worse quarters in the Tallahassee federal prison—virtual solitary confinement in a cell reserved for prisoners who might endanger other convicts.
From day one, many observers believed Al-Arian was marked to be a prize trophy in the war against terror. He was a high-profile, aggressive Palestinian activist for Palestinian justice long before 9/11 and the enactment of the PATRIOT Act. Moreover, he was a Muslim who had lived in the United States for 30 years without becoming a citizen. [He explained that he wanted citizenship only in an independent Palestine.]
Now for the supreme irony: the same professor Sami Al-Arian was a key figure in the same George W. Bush’s election to the presidency in 2000.
Although I had met Al-Arian on several earlier occasions, he first entered my life forcefully six years ago, in the afterglow of Republican Bush’s victory. Like millions of Americans, myself included, Al-Arian supported Bush because the candidate’s campaign statements suggested that he would be more likely to support a balanced U.S. policy in the Middle East than his opponent, Democrat Al Gore. Prompted by that reasoning, Al-Arian went to work persuading Florida Muslims to forego their usual preference for Democratic candidates by supporting Bush.
After voting booths closed, Florida emerged as the key state. As every adult will remember, when the votes were counted in other states, the electoral college decision awaited the vote total in Florida, Al-Arian’s place of residence, where he had already established his reputation as a forceful, effective leader of Florida Muslims. On election day, he masterfully mustered the Florida Muslim vote for Bush. A poll Al-Arian conducted showed that 91 percent of Muslims supported Bush. A survey by the Council on American Islamic Relations showed that 20,600 of the votes Bush received in Florida were cast by first-time voters. In all, Florida voters provided a startling plurality of 65,000 votes for Bush, more than four times his final margin as reported to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the final decision for Bush occurred.
If Florida Muslims had not been energized by the pro-Bush enthusiasm of Al-Arian and his campaign team, Gore would have been elected president. It is reasonable, therefore, to credit Al-Arian with giving Bush a key to the White House. Now he languishes in a prison cell reserved for troublemakers—the undeserving victim of Bush’s frantic quest for a trophy of the terrorism war. The Al-Arian episode is one of the most miserable and depressing among the grotesque absurdities that have flooded the nation since the 9/11 horror.
Al-Arian’s arrest, incarceration and eventual banishment to some other country—not yet identified—amount to an ugly maladministration of justice that mocks one of America’s most noble principles—equal justice for all. In a more civil moment in history, Al-Arian never would have been arrested or marked for deportation. Truly a modern-day Tom Paine, he would be saluted for his assistance to victims of oppression and fidelity to America’s enduring principles.
Former Congressman Paul Findley (R-IL) is the author of five books, including They Dare to Speak Out: People and Institutions Confront Israel’s Lobby and Silent No More: Confronting America’s False Images of Islam, both available from the AET Book Club. He resides in Jacksonville, IL.