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Said Arikat

Arian case damning indictment of US justice system post-9/11

Sami al-Arain (centre) with wife Nahla protesting his innocence in 2002 (Getty)

Date of publication: 9 February, 2015

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Comment: The persecution and prosecution of Palestinian professor Sami al-Arian paints a chilling picture of US justice post 9/11. His treatment was ‘gratuitously punitive’. His case is unique.
On Wednesday, 4 February 4, Dr Sami al-Arian, a once prominent computer engineering professor at the University of Southern Florida, boarded a plane from the Washington Dulles International Airport accompanied by his wife Nahla on their way to Istanbul, Turkey.

He is to never set foot on US soil again. Deported, as part of a plea bargain, his departure marked the end of a nightmarish ordeal that began on September 28, 2001. It
     I came to the United States for freedom, but four decades later, I am leaving to gain my freedom.
leaves in its wake a chilling picture of the post-11 September 2001 prosecution world, and how the 2001 Patriot Act has fundamentally altered American jurisprudence.

The Palestinian scholar said he agreed to the deportation deal in order to "conclude his case and bring an end to his family’s suffering". In a statement released upon his deportation, Arian was almost wistful.

"After 40 years, my time in the US has come to an end. Like many immigrants of my generation, I came to the US in 1975 to seek a higher education and greater opportunities. But I also wanted to live in a free society where freedom of speech, association and religion are not only tolerated but guaranteed and protected under the law. That’s why I decided to stay and raise my family here after earning my doctorate in 1986. Simply put, to me, freedom of speech and thought represented the cornerstone of a dignified life.

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"I came to the United States for freedom, but four decades later, I am leaving to gain my freedom."

Arian's case is probably like no other. His persecution and consequent prosecution began after he agreed to appear on the sensationalist American TV network, FOX News, owned by Rupert Murdoch, known for his close ties to the Israeli Likud Party. In particular, Arian agreed to appear on the O’Reilly Factor, a loud shouting match of a talk-show that found its niche and a spike in ratings in the aftermath of the tragedy of 11 September 2001, playing on the American people’s shock and fear.

Witchhunt

Arian appeared on the show's 26 September 2001 episode, exactly two weeks after the 11 September attacks. The show’s host, the right-wing conservative firebrand Bill O'Reilly is infamous for his super aggressive, ill-tempered, ill-mannered style, designed to provoke his guests of all political orientations. And he reserves special loathing towards Arabs, Muslim, Palestinian, Democrats and gays. O'Reilly asked his guest not about the subject at hand – the reaction of Arab Americans to 11 September attacks – but instead began interrogating him in the most vile prosecutorial manner about a statement Arian made back in 1988 that included the phrase, "Death to Israel".

It went like this:

O'REILLY: In – in 1988, you did a little speaking engagement in Cleveland, and you were quoted as saying, ‘Jihad is our path. Victory to Islam. Death to Israel. Revolution. Revolution until victory. Rolling to Jerusalem.’ Did you say that?

ARIAN: Let me just put it into context. When president Bush talked about crusade, we understand what he meant here. The Muslim world thought he is going to carry a cross and go invade the Muslim world and turn them into Christians. We have to understand the context. When you say ‘Death to Israel,’ you mean death to occupation, death to apartheid, death to oppression, death to...(sentence interrupted)

O'Reilly ended by calling on the Central Intelligence Agency to shadow Arian and the interview caused Arian to receive death threats from across the country. Beginning the next day, the University of South Florida was inundated with hundreds of threatening letters and emails. Thirty-six hours after the interview, the university put the professor on paid leave.

The man who sought refuge from homelessness and statelessness in the land of the free and the home of the brave, the Palestinian refugee from Gaza, would, from this point on, be the victim of a witch-hunt that would ultimately land him behind bars.

He was arrested in 2003 at a time when he had become one of the most prominent Palestinian activists in the United States. In addition to teaching at the USF, Arian was a frequent media commentator and speaker at anti-war rallies. He had co-founded the Tampa Bay Coalition for Peace and Justice and the National Coalition to Protect Political Freedom. Between 1997 and 2001, he visited the White House four times. In the 2000 American presidential elections, Arian actively campaigned for George W. Bush.

When Arian was arrested nearly 12 years ago come February 20th, 2003, John Ashcroft, the Attorney General of the United States, under whose stewardship the "Patriot Act" was passed, actually went on national television and made pretty extraordinary claims about Arian, distorting and spreading outlandish trumped-up allegations, calling him a terrorist on national television.

'Gratuitously punitive'

In one of the most controversial prosecutions of the post-11 September era, Arian was jailed in Florida for five-and-a-half years on what many described as trumped-up charges of providing "material support" to Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), a group that had been designated a terrorist organization under the Clinton administration.

Arian was initially charged with 17 counts. The Florida jury that heard them failed to return a single guilty verdict. After prosecutors re-filed charges, an exhausted Arian – who had stuck to his position from the very beginning that this was no more than a political case, that it had nothing to do with the criminal attacks on 11 September 2001 or nipping terrorism in the bud – chose jail time and deportation rather than face a second trial. For much of the three years following his arrest in 2003, he was imprisoned in solitary confinement and reportedly abused by prison staff under conditions Amnesty International called "gratuitously punitive”.

Arian’s case raised troubling due process, academic freedom, free speech and use-of-secret-evidence issues. And looking at this case soberly, one cannot help but think that Arian’s activism on behalf of the Palestinian cause had much to do with his persecution.

Here is why. We would learn from press reports that the jurors 10-2 favoured acquittal on all counts. But the government wouldn’t have it. It insisted on a face-saving justification for the long, costly and pointless prosecution. Tapped out of money and wanting closure, Arian acquiesced to a plea bargain that admitted to one of the charges in exchange for a promise that after a maximum incarceration of 57 months, he would be allowed to leave the country by April 2007.

He pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to contribute services to or for the benefit of the Palestine Islamic Jihad (PIJ), a Specially Designated Terrorist organization, in violation of (US law) 18 U.S.C. § 371. However, that ‘contribution’, as we would learn later, was described as hiring a lawyer for his brother-in-law during his immigration battle in the late 1990s; sponsoring a Palestinian historian in 1994 to conduct research in the US; and withholding information from a US journalist during a 1995 interview. Many noted at the time that not one of those acts was clearly criminal.

Arian’s case will remain a chilling chapter in US juridical history. His treatment after being acquitted on most charges was widely viewed as a shocking abuse of the system and a flagrant violation of agreement reached with the Justice Department. The Justice Department put unprecedented effort into the Florida prosecution and suffered one of its greatest trial defeats in an area where convictions were taken for granted. Later proceedings were viewed as retaliatory and abusive. It also showed how the civil and contempt laws can be used to abuse individuals and leave them with little recourse or rights.

Finally, the Justice Department broke the plea bargain deal and went about circuitously creating contempt citations to prolong his incarceration. It was as abusive as it was wrong.

Arian is free now. But his freedom came at a very high cost to the engineering professor and his family.

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