After 60 days without food, an ailing Sami Al-Arian called off his hunger strike last week at the urging of his wife and children. But just hours later, a federal appeals court upheld a civil contempt ruling that could keep Al-Arian behind bars indefinitely.
Al-Arian has been imprisoned since 2003 on trumped-up charges of supporting terrorism–even though a Florida jury acquitted him or deadlocked on all counts in 2005.
Faced with the possibility of a retrial, Al-Arian agreed to plead guilty to a single count of supporting the nonviolent activities of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. The deal specified that Al-Arian would be given a short additional sentence, followed by voluntary deportation–even though Al-Arian has lived in the U.S. since 1975, and his five children are all U.S. citizens.
Instead, the U.S. government continued its witch-hunt.
First, a Florida judge imposed the maximum sentence, despite the recommendations of federal prosecutors in Florida for a lesser sentence. Then, federal prosecutors in Virginia demanded that Al-Arian testify in an investigation into Muslim charities in that state–despite a verbal agreement, recorded in court transcripts, that he would be exempt from future testimony.
The appeals court’s decision last week upholds the contempt ruling against Al-Arian for refusing to testify–claiming that the plea agreement "contains no language which would bar the government from compelling appellant’s testimony before a grand jury."
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THIS IS just is just the latest chapter in the persecution of Al-Arian that led the former University of South Florida professor to go on hunger strike.
"It was unbelievable," said Al-Arian’s wife, Nahla Al-Arian, in an interview. "I’m sure the government would have let him die."
According to Nahla, Virginia’s Assistant U.S. Attorney Gordon Kromberg has gone out of his way to prolong Sami’s suffering. Kromberg has reportedly made anti-Muslim statements regarding Al-Arian’s case–including allegedly complaining about the "Islamization" of the U.S. justice system.
"This man was very upset when my husband got this deal from the government," Nahla said. "He wanted my husband to stay in jail forever. He ignored the plea agreement terms that said that my husband didn’t want to cooperate."
When Al-Arian refused to take the stand, he was given an additional 18-month sentence, a move that will keep him imprisoned beyond his original April 13 release date. "When the judge did this to him, he said, ‘I’m going to start a hunger strike, because what’s happening to me is very unfair and unjust,’" Nahla said.
Al-Arian began refusing all food on January 22. His hunger strike was also designed to draw attention to the racist abuse he has suffered at the hands of prosecutors and prison guards, and the inhumane conditions he has been subjected to–including being housed in a rat- and roach-infested cell.
"We Muslims here are, unfortunately, the new target of racism," said Nahla. "All of these things that they did to him, without any necessity except just to humiliate him and to torture him–and every time he would ask, ‘Why are you doing this to me?’, they would answer, ‘Because you are a terrorist.’ As if we didn’t go through a lengthy trial for six months, and our innocence wasn’t proven. The racism is unbelievable."
By the end of his hunger strike, Al-Arian had lost 55 pounds–more than a quarter of his original body weight–and he was confined to a wheelchair, unable to walk or stand on his own.
As he approached his 60th day without food, his family had become particularly concerned about his health. Irish Republican prisoners on hunger strike in the 1980s began dying around the 60th day without food.
"We were shocked and scared when we saw him," Nahla said, of a recent visit that she and her children made to the North Carolina prison medical facility where Sami is housed. He looked like those in an African famine, or a Holocaust survivor. His body, his ribs, everything was showing. He looked very, very weak. His cheekbones were also showing…There was no flesh, he was only bones and skin."
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THE FEDS aren’t finished with Sami Al-Arian yet.
The federal appeals court decision against him means that prosecutors are now free to once again drag Al-Arian in front of a grand jury–and have the court re-impose a sentence for civil contempt until he testifies. In essence, he can be held hostage indefinitely.
"Unfortunately, we are going through a very dark time in the history of America with the courts," said Nahla. "The courts are…affected by the atmosphere of fear and intimidation. There are very few times now where you can see courageous rulings in terms of foreigners."
"If they can get away with it," she says, "they will keep him forever."
Nahla adds that the family has received support in their battle, which is giving them the strength to go on.
"Just being here with my fellow Americans, fighting for justice, rallying together, writing letters together–the sense of working together as one family, loving each other and caring about each other is so beautiful," she says. "That’s what’s happening in our situation, and that’s what the government, I’m sure, is not happy to see."
Organizations including Amnesty International, the National Council of Churches, the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the Al-Awda Palestine Right to Return Coalition have all circulated statements on Al-Arian’s behalf.
And on March 24, as many as 100 people gathered near the federal prison facility in Butner, N.C., to rally for Al-Arian’s release.
"This person has been tortured," said one of the protesters, Margaret Misch, of the Orange County Bill of Rights Defense Committee. "He’s already given up his citizenship. Everything’s gone for him now. The decent thing is to let him go."
How You Can Help
Demand that Dr. Sami Al-Arian be set free. Write to: Honorable Judge Gerald Lee, U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, 401 Courthouse Square, Alexandria, VA 22314–and request that Dr. Al-Arian be released from detention and allowed to leave the country with his family.
For more information on the case and what you can do to help, visit the Free Sami Al-Arian Web site.
NICOLE COLSON is a reporter for the Socialist Worker.