Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, July 2006, pages 32-33
Sami Al-Arian’s Plea “Bargain”
The Sentencing of Dr. Sami Al-Arian
By Melva Underbakke
Since Sept. 11, 2001, the United States has been waging a war—a war against some of its own people. This war receives less attention than the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but it is no less real. Since that infamous date, over 5,000 Arabs living in the United States have been arrested, many with no charges, others with nebulous charges of providing support to terrorist organizations. Although none have been convicted of terrorism, these supposed “terrorists” are arrested with great fanfare. Announcements of the “successes in the war on terror” receive national media attention, and the detainee is spirited away to solitary confinement. While incarcerated, these unfortunate people have virtually no voice—no way to tell their story to the outside world. And when they are found innocent, little or nothing is said—and so their stories are rarely heard. Sami Al-Arian is one of these people.
Following a 10-year investigation, Dr. Sami Al-Arian and co-defendant Sammeeh Hammoudeh were arrested in the predawn hours of Feb. 20, 2003 and charged with providing material support to a terrorist group—the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. One month later (March 27), the men were moved from the local jail in Tampa, Florida, to a maximum-security federal penitentiary in Coleman, Florida, 75 miles away, where they spent over two and a half years in horrendous conditions awaiting trial. Prior to his arrest, Sami Al-Arian, a Palestinian, had been an outspoken voice for the Palestinian cause, but now he was silenced.
The trial began on June 6, 2005, and ended six months later. On all of the many charges, not a single guilty verdict was reached. Jurors were deadlocked on nine charges, but they unanimously agreed that Dr. Al-Arian was innocent of any connection to violence—either direct or indirect. Most of the jury wanted to acquit the defendants on all charges, and Sameeh Hammoudeh was unanimously found innocent of all charges.
In spite of the verdict, both defendants remained in jail, and Dr. Al-Arian remained in solitary confinement. To end the suffering of both himself and his family, Dr. Al-Arian agreed to plead guilty to one of the lesser charges. The plea agreement (which the judge accepted) stated only that Dr. Al-Arian had provided services to people associated with the PIJ. One of these services was helping his brother-in-law with his legal defense, and another was helping a colleague obtain a visa. Even the government did not claim that he had any connection to violence.
The government presented some very strong evidence—and the evidence showed that Dr. Al-Arian is innocent.
The sentencing hearing was held on May 1, 2006. As the judge began to speak, a shock wave went through the courtroom—his comments were such a departure from what had gone on in that room for six months as government prosecutors presented their case. In spite of six months of evidence to the contrary, Judge James Moody described Dr. Al-Arian as a “master manipulator” and said that the “evidence is clear that [he was] the leader of the PIJ.” Going against the government recommendation of the minimum sentence, he instead sentenced Dr. Al-Arian to the maximum time specified in the plea agreement of 57 months in prison, followed by deportation.
As a frequent observer in the courtroom since the beginning of this case, it appeared to me that few who had actually witnessed the trial except the judge believed that Dr. Al-Arian had any connection to violence, either direct or indirect. This is probably not because the government lawyers did a bad job, but because they just did not have a case. In fact, one could argue that they did a good job. They were compelled to create a case against an innocent man, and in spite of the lack of evidence, they have managed to keep him in jail for over three years already—and this will continue for another year and a half, at which time Dr. Al-Arian will be deported.
In the days that followed, however, many people in the media seemed to forget what had actually happened in the courtroom. For example, a May 2 Tampa Tribune editorial praised Judge Moody for exposing a “cold-blooded terrorist” and described Al-Arian’s supporters as “myopic.”
One might ask who is myopic in this case. Possibly, the “myopic supporters” of Dr. Al-Arian have tried to look past biases and second-hand reports to find the facts of this case, realizing that the frequent repetition of a “fact” does not make it true. Before something can be considered a “fact,” it must be supported by evidence. In this case, the government presented some very strong evidence—and the evidence showed that Dr. Al-Arian is innocent.
Possibly, these supporters have also looked beyond the borders of their country to see what is going on in the Middle East, and they have seen that the Palestinians are the victims. They are an occupied people, and by international law, have the right to resist an illegal occupation.
The Palestinians are suffering greatly under Israel’s illegal occupation: their homes are being demolished, their means of livelihood are being destroyed, and their children are being killed in large numbers—frequently by a bullet to the head by an Israeli soldier (<www.rememberthesechildren.org>). No, the Israeli army does not use suicide bombers to deliver bombs—it uses Apache helicopters paid for by our tax dollars (over $15 million a day).
At great risk to himself, Dr. Al-Arian has tried to work through our political system to help his people. Now he is paying the price. ❑
Melva Underbakke is an educator, researcher and activist from Tampa, FL, and the founder of Friends of Human Rights, which opposes the denial of due process and human rights to Sami Al-Arian and many others.
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.