Sami al-Arian’s Final Persecution

You have to wonder about a few things in the May 1 sentencing of Sami Al-Arian.

For example, Alberto Gonzalez–the “torture-is-OK” and “no-law-binds-the-president” U.S. attorney general”–flew into the Tampa Bay area five days before the courtroom spectacle in which federal District Judge James Moody threw the book at Al-Arian, albeit a tattered tome that bore no resemblance to truth, justice or the U.S. Constitution.

Or, consider that Tampa’s U.S. Attorney, Paul Perez, showed up–for the first time during the Al-Arian case–at the prosecution table on sentencing day. Courthouse gossips, including some of Perez’s own staff, have told me he had wanted to keep a little distance during the trial in case his subalterns faltered. Falter they did. The prosecution team stumbled through awful lawyering and a series of strategic pratfalls. After a decade of investigations, costing U.S. taxpayers as much as $50 million, the feds didn’t prove a single crime was committed by Al-Arian and three other Palestinians. Meanwhile, real terrorists with blood on the minds, such as Mohammed Atta, went undetected in Florida.

So, why did Perez show up at the drama’s final scene? Why was he so eager to race to a spot in front of the TV cameras and make inflammatory claims about things his minions couldn’t prove to a jury?

It’s almost as if Perez KNEW Moody was going to surprise everyone and ignore the negotiated recommendations from both prosecution and defense attorneys that Al-Arian be given the light side of federal sentencing guidelines of 46 to 57 months in jail. With time served, Al-Arian could have anticipated almost immediate release and deportation. Now, with Moody’s sentencing, he’ll languish through as much as another 18 months in jail.

Those at the sentencing hearing noticed that the prosecutors, when they entered the courtroom, appeared almost jovial. That’s suspicious when you remember how badly they were humiliated when a jury in December failed to return a single guilty verdict against Al-Arian and his three co-defendants. (Other counts resulted in mistrials, but in no instance did more than two of the 12 jurors favor conviction on any charge.)

Why were the feds so upbeat? What had gone on when Gonzalez dropped into town? Considering that this administration admits to no legal restraint, and its deceptions and mendacities are a matter of daily public discussion, I believe the fix was made. Careers could be capped or ended by anyone not playing on the team.

Perez already had been passed over for one federal judgeship–and speculation among his own staff was that it stemmed from his office’s clear complicity in attempting to frame an anti-corruption crusading state judge.

So, my bet is that Gonzalez came to town and lowered the hammer. Give me blood, is what I think he told Perez and Moody. Or else.

The only reasonable explanation is that Al-Arian was set up by the “recommendation” from the U.S. Attorney’s office for a light sentence. Snookered. The feds never intended for Al-Arian to leave jail anytime soon. Judge Moody did as ordered.

The government’s motivation? Revenge. Occam’s Razor–the simplest explanation that fits the facts. The prosecutors have routinely lied and deceived in presenting their case. This final deception was in character. What they couldn’t win in a fair trial, they rejoiced at achieving by deceit.

Beyond that, there’s little doubt of Moody’s deeply ingrained prejudice. The judge would not allow the defense to bring up the slightest mention during the trial of the almost four decades of grinding military occupation of Palestinian lands by the Israelis. Tons of evidence–highly prejudicial and largely irrelevant to the facts of the case–was admitted about Israeli deaths. No evidence was allowed about Palestinian deaths. The jury heard about murdered Israeli children, nothing about the far greater number of murdered Arab kids.

Despite that grossly unjust imbalance dictated by Moody, the jurors saw through the propaganda and said, repeatedly, “not guilty.”

Al-Arian did eventually plead guilty to one count–but that was a greatly eviscerated charge. He faced another trial on the remaining counts if he didn’t reach an agreement. In an interview last year, he asked me to withhold his assessment of Moody. At that time, he said he feared another trial because he was sure that the overtly biased Moody would not allow a verdict other than guilty.

But a plea of guilty is a plea of guilty. The stateless Palestinian refugee conceded:

— He had helped his brother-in-law, Mazen Al-Najjar, defend himself. Al-Najjar was jailed for almost four years based on “secret evidence.” Al-Najjar has never been convicted of anything, although he was charged as a co-defendant. The government, shortly before the indictment, released and deported Al-Najjar, which raises the question about whether the G-men really thought he was a terrorist.

— He provided assistance on immigration matters to Basheer Nafi, another alleged co-conspirator who was never tried and, therefore, has never been convicted of anything. Nafi also was deported by the federal government, on immigration not terrorism matters.

— He lied to a St. Petersburg Times reporter, Jim Harper. Al-Arian claimed he had no knowledge of Ramadan Shallah’s role in the Islamic Jihad. Shallah left Tampa in early 1995, and there is no record he had any contact with Al-Arian or any of the co-defendants after that. About a half-year later, Shallah resurfaced in Damascus and took over the Islamic Jihad.

What Al-Arian didn’t do is to admit to any violence. And, the government stipulated that nothing he admitted to resulted directly or indirectly in violence.

Moreover, what’s missing from most of the egregiously misleading reports in The Tampa Tribune, and in the statements by Judge Moody at sentencing, is a time element. The record was very clear that Al-Arian had no active role with the Islamic Jihad after the federal government designated it a terrorist organization in the mid-1990s. Al-Arian’s earlier activities–political activism and fund-raising–occurred during the time when it was perfectly legal to support the group.

Yet, Judge Moody justified his harsh sentence by claiming Al-Arian had blood on his hands–an assertion rejected by the jurors. One who spoke to me said the jury “most emphatically” disagreed with the conclusion by Moody. This was the same judge who had ruled that Al-Arian and associates couldn’t mention one word about the military occupation or the plight of the Palestinian people. As I wrote after that ruling, if MLK had been on trial in Judge Moody’s courtroom for disturbing the peace, he wouldn’t have been allowed to mention Jim Crow or lynchings. This is how ludicrous the judge’s rulings were: The prosecution, during closing arguments, noted a document that mentioned U.N. Resolution 242. The defense wanted to explain to the jury what 242 said. The judge wouldn’t allow it because it painted a somewhat sympathetic picture of the Palestinians.
The judge also insulted the jurors by parroting a discredited, paid government snitch, Munir Arafat. His testimony was thoroughly demolished during the trial.

Arafat had asserted that Al-Arian sent his children to the best U.S. universities, while promoting the violence that killed children in the Middle East. That hyperbolic claim was rejected by the jury.

Al-Arian is far from a perfect person. Not only did he lie to Harper, but he was deceptive (or as he told me in an interview last year, “incomplete”) in statements to me. But he wasn’t the only one. The ersatz terrorism expert who started the crusade against Al-Arian, Steve Emerson, also lied. Harper also reported that Emerson had claimed the Tampa Palestinians were involved in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Emerson claimed he had proof. He did not. Emerson also sued me, and couldn’t produce proof of his allegations; I prevailed.

The Tampa Tribune made up stories out of air. Under the tutelage of Emerson, the newspaper tried to pin the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing on Al-Arian. The paper has never retracted or apologized for that mendacity.

According to an article by the highly regarded St. Petersburg Times columnist Susan Taylor Martin, the Israelis weren’t much interested in the final chapter of the Al-Arian case. He just wasn’t that important.

But for our government, he represented the utter failure of George Bush’s “war on terrorism.” He had to pay the price.

When was Al-Arian important? More than a decade ago, when Israel’s Likudniks in the United States, such as Emerson, were working feverishly to undermine the Oslo peace process. No Arab voice could be tolerated, and Al-Arian (unlike any terrorist I’ve heard about) was vigorously trying to communicate with our government and its leaders. He was being successful, making speeches to intelligence and military commanders at MacDill AFB’s Central Command, inviting the FBI and other officials to attend meetings of his groups. People were beginning to listen and to wonder why only one side of the Middle East debate was heard here.

That was the reason for Al-Arian’s political prosecution, a horrendous undermining of our Constitution’s guarantees of free speech and fair judicial process.

I disagree with Al-Arian on many things. I believe his people would have won their state had they pursued the tactics of MLK and Gandhi. I believe Israel needs to be assured of security (but not conquest and expansion) and the Palestinians deserve an end to occupation. Al-Arian recognized the inevitability of Israel; he never conceded the Israelis could be partners in peace and prosperity.

Beyond all of that is the fact that any study of Al-Arian reveals a clear trajectory, one that veered away from radicalism and towards a belief in democracy. The government found one very old letter authored by Al-Arian (but never mailed) that condoned a violent attack (against military units, not civilians). What America never had a chance to hear were the many subsequent statements that moved towards moderation.

It’s interesting that Judge Moody called the Palestinian academic a “master manipulator.” Another man claims that he originated that phrase, as it applied to Al-Arian–Norman Gross, a radical activist for Israel who lives in St. Petersburg. It’s fitting, but sad, that an American judge should adopt the slogan of one side in this case. Justice in Tampa is neither balanced or blind.

John Sugg is editor of Creative Loafing. He can be reached at