A Palestinian family reacts after Israeli bulldozers demolished their home in the Arab East Jerusalem neighborhood of Beit Hanina, Feb. 5, 2013. (AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)
Newly elected Israeli Knesset member Yair Lapid (l), leader of the Yesh Atid party, speaks to Naftali Bennett, head of the hard-line national religious party the Jewish Home, during a Feb. 5 reception in Jerusalem marking the opening of the 19th Knesset. (URIEL SINAI/GETTY IMAGES)
Richard Curtiss at work in his Washington Report office. (STAFF PHOTO D. HANLEY)
Then-Vice President Dick Cheney (l) and Likud chairman Benyamin Netanyahu, out of office at the time and serving as the official Israeli opposition leader, at a March 23, 2008 breakfast meeting at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. (PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)
Philippine President Benigno Aquino III (r) shares candies with Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) chief Murad Ebrahim during a Feb. 11 visit to the rebels’ stronghold in Sultan Kudarat on the island of Mindanao. (KARLOS MANLUPIG/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)
Emad Burnat views his five broken cameras in his documentary of the same name. (PHOTO COURTESY KINO LORBER)
Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, April 2007, pages 32-33
The Ordeal of Dr. Sami Al-Arian
“We Shall Overcome”
By Eric E. Vickers
THESE DAMNING words have apparently guided the prosecutor’s actions, as demonstrated by his intent to circumvent the legal process to punish Dr. Al-Arian, and further proved by the case of Sabri Benkahla. As an accused member of the so-called Virginia 11 Paintball case, Benkahla was prosecuted in 2004 for allegedly giving aid to the Taliban. Along with one other defendant, Benkahla was fully acquitted—and by a hard-nosed federal judge rather than a jury of his peers. Nonetheless, Kromberg would not allow Benkahla to enjoy his hard-won freedom for long.
Shortly after his acquittal, Benkahla was summoned to appear before a grand jury in another investigation. Though he attempted to answer the grand jury’s questions in good faith, Benkahla was immediately hit with perjury and obstruction of justice charges by Kromberg. On Feb. 6, Benkahla was convicted of these charges and faces a maximum sentence of up to 25 years. According to an Associated Press report, defense attorneys argued that “prosecutors, stung by Benkahla’s acquittal in 2004 ...laid a perjury trap by summoning him before the grand jury and asking a variety of questions that had no bearing on the grand jury’s terrorism investigation.”
We shall never fail
The innocents will be
Free from jail
We firmly believe
The truth will definitely prevail
Sitting in a jail cell in South Florida three years ago, Dr. Sami Al-Arian penned those words to honor Martin Luther King in a poem he titled, “We Shall Overcome.” In February 2007—more than a year after a jury stunningly rejected the government’s highly publicized terrorism case against him—Dr. Al-Arian remained in jail, determined, through a hunger strike, to “overcome.”
The refrain “We shall overcome” is a cry for justice that resonates through this land, invoking the 1950s and ”˜60s, when thousands sang and marched defiantly against an unjust, racist and seemingly all-powerful system.
Dr. Al-Arian symbolizes the “Negro” of this century—the Palestinian people, seeking to overcome the oppressive conditions imposed upon them by Israel. It is not the Biblical “Israel” praised from the pulpit now, and when the church was a catalyst for what was called the “Negro revolt.” Rather, the Israel that Dr. Al-Arian resists is the nation created at the end of World War II through, literally, the confiscation of Palestinian land in the Middle East.
In February 2003, Dr. Al-Arian, who has lived in this country since coming here in 1975 at the age of 17 to attend college, was arrested and indicted for allegedly being a leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which the U.S. government has deemed a terrorist organization. But the government did not charge that Dr. Al-Arian ever sought to harm this country.
In December 2005, after a half-year trial, a South Florida jury failed to return even a single guilty verdict on any of the over 90 criminal charges against Dr. Al-Arian and three other alleged terrorist co-conspirators (see Jan./Feb. 2006 Washington Report, p. 14). He was acquitted on eight of 17 charges, with the jury deadlocked on the rest. According to Time Magazine, the jurors “joltingly” handed “the Justice Department one of its most embarrassing post-9/11 defeats.”
From jail, Dr. Al-Arian, who before his ordeal was a tenured college professor, described his trial:
“After two-and-a-half years in pretrial detention with Guantanamo-like conditions, mostly under 23-hour lockdowns, followed by a six-month trial with 80 witnesses, including 21 from Israel, thousands of documents, phone interceptions, physical surveillance, Web sites, hearsay evidence, anything and everything they could think of, preceded by 12 years of investigations, tens of millions of dollars, some even say $80 million spent on this investigation, with 94 charges against me and my co-defendants and with my defense only being four words—”˜I rest my case’—how did the jury see it? They gave zero convictions.”
But the government persisted, threatening a retrial. And faced with the prospect of more jail time while awaiting such a retrial, Dr. Al-Arian decided to make a deal. According to his attorney, Peter Erlinder of the National Lawyers Guild: “The prosecution had agreed that Dr. Al-Arian essentially should have been released shortly after the plea agreement in May of 2006, and that he would voluntarily leave the country...”
Nevertheless, Dr. Al-Arian today remains incarcerated for refusing to testify to a Virginia grand jury about another supposed Muslim conspiracy, which his lawyer says is both a trap and a breach by the government of the plea deal. The contempt ruling, however, could cause Dr. Al-Arian’s date of release to be extended by up to 18 months.
Sami Al-Arian embarked on a hunger strike to protest his denial of freedom in particular and America’s persistent discriminatory injustice in general. In brotherhood with others before him who suffered in jail for their people’s cause, Dr. Al-Arian sits in his cell, at peace in his poetry:
We shall be patient and cope
Unity is our only hope.
Eric E. Vickers, an attorney and civil rights activist, is a member of the board of the American Muslim Alliance.