In a nationwide press conference in 2003, George W. Bush’s attorney general, the born-again John Ashcroft, trumpeted the arrest of Dr. Sami al-Arian, who he described as “the most dangerous man in the world.”
In announcing the 120-page indictment, Ashcroft charged that al-Arian and his three co-defendants played “a substantial role in international terrorism…They finance … and assist acts of terror. Our message to them is clear: We make no distinction between those who carry out terrorist attacks, and those who knowingly finance, manage, or supervise terrorist organizations.” He charged that al-Arian had been actively funding terrorist attacks inIsraelas theUSleader of Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
All that was nine years ago. Nine years. And, in one form or another, Dr. al-Arian has pretty much been incarcerated ever since.
Incarcerated not in some tinpot dictatorship, but in the United States of America. The same America that prides itself on the fairness and integrity of its criminal justice system and the rule of law.
As Glenn Greenwald wrote in Salon: “Each time it appears that [al-Arian’s] plight will finally be over, the U.S. Government concocts a new process to ensure that he remains a prisoner.”
This is how it happened:
Rewind to the mid-1990s. That’s when the FBI began its decade-long surveillance of Dr. al-Arian. A Palestinian born in Kuwait, al-Arian was in the U.S.as a permanent resident. He was well-known in the Muslim Community throughout the United States, popular among his students at the University of South Florida (USF), where he was a tenured professor of computer engineering. At the same time, his reputation as a well-informed Palestinian was growing among members of Congress and advisors to President Clinton, who invited him to the White House.
Things began to turn sour for al-Arian after his university tried to fire him following his guest appearance on Bill O’Reilly’s show, The Factor, on Fox News. It was clear that USF was looking for a pretext to make the al-Arian story go away. The DOJ finally indicted al-Arian on Feb, 20, 2003, and accused him of backing organizations fronting for Palestinian Islamic Jihad – a 1997 State Department-designated “Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO).”
It charged al-Arian with multiple counts of conspiracies to provide material support for this organization. The mountain of wiretaps, emails, speeches, lectures, and much more the FBI collected from Dr. al-Arian, would constitute the government’s case against him.
A week after al-Arian’s indictment, University of South Florida president Judy Genshaft fired him with the backing of then Governor Jeb Bush, and pressure from a vocal segment of the “Israel right or wrong” US foreign policy establishment.
And despite the Constitutional guarantee of a speedy trial, the court case didn’t begin until 28 months later, during which al-Arian was held in solitary confinement. He was locked in a small, windowless cell for 23 hours each day. So harsh were the conditions of his imprisonment that Amnesty International was compelled to write US prosecutors, “calling for a review of the pre-trial detention conditions…aspects of which it said appeared to be gratuitously punitive,’ ” and a breach of international standards.
The period leading up to the trial was marked by shrill and frequently inaccurate public accusations against al-Arian. Many of the more outrageous came from Fox News and from Steve Emerson, a self-styled “terrorism expert” best known for his off-the-wall predictions of impending terrorist attacks on the homeland. Emerson runs a not-for-profit outfit called The Investigative Project on Terrorism, and also has a for-profit company that does corporate and government consulting.
Among some of his more notorious claims, Emerson told a reporter shortly after the 1995 Oklahoma Citybombing that he believed the perpetrators were likely Islamic terrorists. The reporter, Tampa Tribune‘s Michael Fechter, wrote: “More and more, terrorism experts in the United States and elsewhere say Wednesday’s bombing inOklahoma City bears the characteristics of other deadly attacks linked to Islamic militants.” Fechter now works for Emerson’s Investigative Project.
The blogosphere was also alive with right-left battles over the al-Arian case. The mainstream print press appeared to be as clueless as usual in its coverage of legal proceedings. As it struggled to understand the legalese of the courtroom, it frequently elected to write about the easier-to-understand personal conflicts of the principals in the case, or turn to accessible but unreliable sources, such as Emerson. And as for cable news, including Fox, most coverage was reduced to minimally-informative sound bites.
But the tone of the press coverage, often quoting government officials, seemed to guarantee that the post-9/11 hysteria would frame the al-Arian trial as if the government had designed it.
Fox News Channel, NBC, Media General (specifically itsTampa newspaper) and the giant radio conglomerate, Clear Channel Communications (home of Rush Limbaugh’s broadcasts) shoulder an especially heavy burden for fanning the flames of post-9/11 hysteria.
As Eric Boehlert wrote in Salon, “In the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, all four media giants, eagerly tapping into the country’s mood of vengeance and fear, latched onto the al-Arian story, fudging the facts and ignoring the most rudimentary tenets of journalism in their haste to better tell a sinister story about lurking Middle Eastern dangers here at home.”
The impact of its battles with the US justice system on al-Arian’s family was profound. Laila al-Arian, one of three al-Arian daughters, told this reporter that “the adversity our family experienced brought us all much closer together. We had to depend on one another for emotional support.”
Laila, a journalist who lives in Washington, DC, said raising money for her father’s legal defense fund was probably the most stressful activity the family had to take on. “We knew just about nothing about raising money. Asking for financial help is a humbling experience.”
“What made it bearable – and successful – was the spirit and goodwill of so many people who offered to help. A woman in Tampa organized demonstrations in support of my father. A man in California, who was a friend of my father, became one of the national voices in his support. There were so many and many of them didn’t know us at all. They were just appalled by what was happening to my Dad,” she said.
Once al-Arian’s trial actually began, the prosecution called 80 witnesses, including more than 20 from Israel. Much of the government’s evidence presented to the jury during the six-month trial consisted of Dr. al-Arian’s speeches, lectures, articles, magazines, books he owned, and accounts of conferences he convened, rallies he attended, interviews he gave, and parts of hundreds of wiretapped phone calls from over a half million recorded.
When the defense’s turn came to present its case, it rested. It called not a single witness in its behalf. Its sole defense was that all of al-Arian’s written and spoken words were protected speech under the First Amendment.
After 13 days of deliberation, the jury found him innocent on eight of the charges, including the most serious, and hung on the rest, voting 10 to 2 to acquit. Two of Al Arian’s three co-defendants were acquitted completely.
The total collapse of the government’s case could only be seen as a devastating embarrassment for the Department of Justice (DOJ), which had spent an estimated $50-$80 million. Observers of the trial believe the DOJ won an expensive humiliation.
But the DOJ’s intent to re-try al-Arian led him to strike a secret plea bargain. He was desperate to avoid both the emotional and financial cost of a new trial to himself and his family. The essence of the plea deal was that al-Arian neither engaged in or had any knowledge of violent acts; that he would not be required to cooperate further with prosecutors; and that he would be released on time served and deported voluntarily to his country of choice.
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