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An Interview with Nahla Al-Arian

Sami Al-Arian’s Nightmare

by NICOLE COLSON

SAMI AL-ARIAN is a victim of the U.S. "war on terror."

The U.S. government has gone out of its way to make an example of this outspoken advocate for Palestinian rights. Racist prosecutors, inhumane treatment and abuse in custody, the prospect of indefinite detention–Al-Arian has been subjected to this and more in the four years he’s been behind bars.

Al-Arian was arrested in February 2003 on charges that he and others used an academic think tank, a Muslim school and a charity as a cover for raising money for "terrorism." Though a Florida jury acquitted him or deadlocked on all counts in 2005, the Feds kept him in prison.

Faced with a retrial, Al-Arian agreed last year to plead guilty to the least serious charge in exchange for what was supposed to be a small addition sentence and his deportation.

But Al-Arian’s nightmare continues. First, federal Judge James Moody ignored prosecutors’ recommendations and sentenced Al-Arian to the maximum possible.

Under the longer sentence, Al-Arian’s release was set for April 13, 2007. But he is now facing an indefinite extension of his prison sentence.

Last year, Gordon Kromberg, the assistant U.S. attorney for the eastern district of Virginia, had Al-Arian transferred to Virginia to testify in an investigation into a Muslim charity there–despite an agreement with Florida prosecutors, recorded in court transcripts, that he would be exempt from future testimony.

When he refused to testify, Al-Arian was found guilty of civil contempt–adding an additional 18 months onto his sentence and opening up the possibility that the government can keep him in prison indefinitely by extending the contempt charge, which the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals recently upheld.

According to Al-Arian’s lawyers, Kromberg has made openly racist statements. They say Kromberg objected to a request to delay Al-Arian’s transfer to Virginia before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, saying, "If [Muslims] can kill each other during Ramadan, they can appear before the grand jury."

Al-Arian also says that he has been subjected to brutal conditions while in prison–including racist abuse from guards, a cell infested with rats and roaches, and other inhumane treatment.

In January, he began a hunger strike to protest his indefinite detention and treatment behind bars. After 60 days of water only, and with his health failing rapidly, his wife and five children convinced him to end his strike.

* * *

WHY DID your husband decide to go on a hunger strike in January?

NAHLA AL-ARIAN: WHAT HAPPENED is that my husband signed a plea agreement with the government last May 2006.

We thought that all the dealings with the government would end with this, because we gave the government the face-saving agreement they wanted, and at the same time, they promised that they wouldn’t call on us–they wouldn’t ask us to cooperate with anything or drag us into any situation where my husband would have to deal with them.

We thought that by the end of June of last year, he was going to be deported, because they said, "Okay guys, you have to leave, that’s part of the agreement." We said, "Thank you very much, we are willing to leave. Just leave us alone."

Unfortunately, the judge gave my husband the maximum sentence, which was about seven months more–although the government recommended to the judge to give us the minimum and let us go.

We accepted to leave this country in June of last year. But what we didn’t know was that the government would continue, because of a federal prosecutor [Gordon Kromberg], who is a committed Zionist.

Very few people know this, but he met my husband in 2002 at an Islamic conference in Washington, D.C., and he said to my husband, "The Palestinians should live in Jordan. This is their country, not Palestine." This is Kromberg.

He was very upset when my husband got this deal from the government. He wanted my husband to stay in jail forever. So what did he do? He just ignored the plea agreement’s terms that said my husband didn’t want to cooperate with future testimony.

The plea agreement usually contains a cooperation clause if you choose to cooperate. The cooperation clause is important here, because it shows everybody that every time you cooperate, the number of months or years gets reduced because of that.

But my husband refused to do any kind of cooperation or include any kind of cooperation clause in his plea deal, because he didn’t want to. He preferred to get the maximum sentence rather than cooperate with the government. Unfortunately, Kromberg ignored all of that, and he subpoenaed my husband to testify before a grand jury in Virginia.

We objected to this. My husband said to the judge in Virginia, "This is against my principles. This is against the plea agreement. The government is not keeping its promise to me to deport me. The government is trying to force me to testify, and I’m not going to do that." But unfortunately, the judge–although he told my husband he knows he’s not going to change his mind–said he would hold him in contempt anyway.

Holding someone in contempt means that you’re trying to convince them to change their mind. It’s not like a sentence–it’s more like coercing someone to change their mind about testifying.

When my husband got this sentence from the judge, he said, "I’m going to start a hunger strike, because what is happening to me is very unfair and unjust. The government is reneging on its promise to deport me, to leave me alone, and I want to show, through fasting, that I am objecting to this persecution."

AND HE was on hunger strike for 60 days?

NAHLA AL-ARIAN: YES, IT was unbelievable. He took only water. Had he stayed on hunger strike more than 60 days, I’m sure the government would have let him die.

Under the procedures that the government follows–and you can look online about it–they usually start the force-feeding to protect the person from dying after 10 days. My husband was left without any help or any feeding from the government for 60 days–and that’s more than enough.

DID THEY give him any kind of medical care while he was on hunger strike?

NAHLA AL-ARIAN: JUST OBSERVING him. He was in a room with a camera most of the time, and he saw the doctor every two weeks. That’s also very weird. If you care about the person, why doesn’t he see the doctor all the time?

They used to also put food in front of him that hunger strikers can’t eat, because it’s very hard for them to eat after all this time. Again, they treated him like he wasn’t really fasting, and that’s very, very disappointing and scary.

CAN YOU describe the visit that you and your children made?

NAHLA AL-ARIAN: WE WERE shocked and scared when we saw him. He looked like someone in an African famine or a Holocaust survivor. His ribs were showing, and he looked very, very weak. His cheekbones were also showing. There was no meat, no flesh–only bones and skin.

So we said, "That’s it, you have to stop. Your message has reached the whole world. Everybody’s concerned." We said to him that you have to stop, for the sake of the children and for the sake of everybody.

WHAT HAVE his conditions been like in prison?

NAHLA AL-ARIAN: WHAT MY husband went through is unbelievable, and so inhumane. They kept dragging him from one prison to another.

When they started this subpoena to get him to testify, they chose to take him just a day or two before the month of Ramadan started. He didn’t have to appear before a grand jury until a month and a half later, so our lawyer said, "Just let the man stay at Coleman [Federal Penitentiary in Florida]. Let him fast the month of Ramadan near his family."

But Kromberg, said "No way, those Muslims kill each other in the month of Ramadan, why should I be part of the ‘Islamization’ of America." Imagine if my husband was Jewish–would he have said something like that? We Muslims are, unfortunately, the new targets of racism.

So my husband was taken a few days before the month of Ramadan on a very, very tiring trip. They call it "diesel therapy"–dragging a prisoner when they want him to be tired and exhausted, and coerce him to testify or do whatever. It’s a kind of gratuitous, punitive measure.

They took my husband to Atlanta Federal Penitentiary and put him in "the hole," or special housing unit, for about two weeks. That was where he was staying with rats and roaches everywhere. The rats used to share his food with him, and the cockroaches also. Everything was horrible. He was allowed only 10 minutes a week of phone calls.

He complained to the judge that even when they traveled with him, they put him in a bus wearing only a torn-apart T-shirt. They took his boxers away from him and gave him a stained, filthy one.

The language they used, the filthy language, and keeping him in dirty clothes, forcing him to move and tightening his handcuffs–all of these things they did to him without any reason except to humiliate him and torture him.

Every time he would ask, "Why do you do this to me," they would say, "Oh, 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.

A FEDERAL appeals court just upheld the contempt charge against Dr. Al-Arian. What will that mean for his case?

NAHLA AL-ARIAN: UNFORTUNATELY, WE are going through a very dark time in the history of America. The courts are affected, I think, by the atmosphere of fear and intimidation, and there are very few times where you can see courageous rulings concerning foreigners.

We were hopeful that the judges would look at our case–we had a very strong case! We presented evidence that my husband insisted on no cooperation in his plea agreement, and that the government agreed to that.

Not only that, but before the judge here in Tampa gave my husband the maximum, the lawyer for the government, one of the former prosecutors in our case, Terry Zitek, himself said in front of the judge that "Sami didn’t want any cooperation clause in his plea deal, and that’s why we removed it."

What can you say? It’s so obvious that judges won’t support you. You are the weak and "the other"–and "the other" is frightening, so you have to protect society from "the other." That’s how they look at us.

If they can get away with it, they will keep him forever. That’s why we need to see activism here–the work of the American people to help free Sami.

WHAT WOULD you like people to do to help his case?

NAHLA AL-ARIAN: WE NEED a lot of people to write letters to their congresspeople, asking them to intervene and ask the attorney general why he has an employee that is abusing his power because of his racist ideology.

If it was done in an honorable way, fine. But when you know that this this federal prosecutor doesn’t really do this because he cares about justice, but because he wants revenge, then there is something wrong here. Using the laws and procedures in our system to get revenge against people–this isn’t fair, and this isn’t acceptable. But that is what this man is doing.

WHAT IMPACT has this had on you and your children?

NAHLA AL-ARIAN: IT HAS been like continuous hell. But at the same time, when we surrender ourselves to the will of God, as believers, we say that there must be something good coming out of all of this.

And there is a lot of good, 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, caring about each other, is so beautiful. That’s what’s happening in our situation, and that’s what the government, I’m sure, is not happy to see.

Sometimes you find in a bad situation a lot of good coming from it. The good that’s coming here outweighs the bad, thank God. We are, of course, trying to be patient and live our lives as normally as we can, and with the help of my friends, my family, everybody, we’re doing a good job.

I just want people to write to their congresspeople. This is the most important thing now–and keep the case alive.

Sami has now stopped the hunger strike, but we don’t want him to feel like people are relaxed now, and they’re not worried about his health anymore. No, we have to keep fighting and struggling until he gets out, God willing–until he joins us again.

NICOLE COLSON is a reporter for the Socialist Worker.