The Ongoing Persecution of Sami al-Arian

Efforts to free Sami al-Arian have now reached the U.S. Supreme Court. On July 30 an appeal was lodged with the Court by his attorneys, led by Professor Jonathan Turley.

There are few prospects in the justice system so grimly awful as when the feds decide never to let go. Rebuffed in their persecutions of some target by juries, or by contrary judges, they shift ground, betray solemn agreements, dream up new stratagems to exhaust their victims, drive them into bankruptcy, despair and even suicide. They have all the money and all the time in the world.

Several months ago I wrote here about the appalling vendetta conducted by the US Justice Department against Sami al-Arian, a professor from Florida who had the book thrown at him in 2003 by Attorney General Ashcroft. As I described it back then, Dr al-Arian was charged in a bloated terrorism and conspiracy case and spent two and a half years in prison, in solitary confinement awaiting trial.

In December 2005, a Tampa jury hung 10 to 2 in favor of acquittal on nine charges. In a plea deal, the government dropped eight of them and demanded Al-Arian plead guilty to a watered-down version of one charge. Normally a hung jury with so large a number of the jurors voting for innocence would mean the prosecutors would not demand a retrial. But given the Justice Department’s vindictiveness in this case and that it might insist on just such  hugely expensive and protracted proceedings, Al-Arian’s lawyers urged him to accept the offer. Under the plea agreement—which the government betrayed –Dr. Al-Arian pled guilty to one charge of providing nonviolent services to people associated with a designated terrorist organization.

A central aspect of the plea agreement was an understanding that al-Arian would not be subject to further prosecution or called to cooperate with the government on any matter. Al-Arian and his lawyers have insistently maintained that the plea deal with Florida prosecutors protected him from cooperating in any additional cases. The government recommended the shortest possible sentence, no more than time served.

But then, almost certainly after a visit to the local federal prosecutors in Tampa by Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez, the feds double-crossed him on the plea agreement and he was thrown back into prison. The biased judge handed down the maximum sentence, which meant a further eleven months of incarceration before release and deportation slated for April 2007. Now Dr al-Arian passed into the malign orbit of prosecutors in Virginia, notably assistant federal prosecutor Gordon Kromberg. The DOJ’s plan now was to set up al-Arian in a perjury trap, compelling him to testify before a grand jury investigating an Islamic think tank called in a case that is unrelated to his. The Institute has been the target of a six-year witch-hunt by Kromberg.

On November 16, 2006, dragged up to Virginia, al-Arian was brought before the grand jury and placed in civil contempt for refusing to testify because the actual intend of the subpoena has been the attempt to trap him. When the grand jury’s term expired, Kromberg promptly empanelled a new one. Al-Arian continued to decline to testify, and was once more held in contempt.

Shunted between prisons in Atlanta, Petersburg and Alexandria, Dr al-Arian endured hunger strikes and maltreatment from guards.

Even with the additional time served, Dr. Al-Arian’s sentence ended on April 7 of this year. He was then taken into the custody of immigration authorities who were making preparations for his deportation. On June 26 the Department of Justice elected to plunge al-Arian and his family into fresh torments, thus prolonging the slow moving auto da fe of the past five years. A new federal indictment charged Dr. Al-Arian with two counts of criminal contempt, relating to the efforts by Virginia prosecutors to bring him before a grand jury investigating other Muslim organizations. Al Arian now faces additional prison time if convicted.

“This indictment proves that the government was never interested in any information that Dr. Al-Arian has on the IIIT [i.e., the International Institute of Islamic Thought] matter,” said his attorney, Professor Jonathan Turley, who has represented al-Arian since May 2007. “They have indicted him despite the fact that the prosecutors admitted that he is a minor witness in the IIIT investigation and he has already given two detailed statements under oath to the government and offered to take a polygraph examination to prove that he has given true information about his knowledge of IIIT. Dr. Al-Arian has addressed every document cited by the government as the reason for his being called before the grand jury. He has shown that he has no incriminating information to offer against either IIIT or its officers.”

On June 30, 2008, Al-Arian was arraigned before US District Judge Leonie Brinkema for the Eastern District of Columbia, but Al-Arian did not enter a plea as Turley stated they were not prepared to do so. The Court, then, entered a not guilty plea on Dr al-Arian’s behalf and scheduled a trial to begin on August 13. According to a statement issued by Turley, the government is further seeking to indict Dr. Al-Arian for the period under which he was under civil contempt confinement. Thus, after holding him for a year, the government now seeks to punish him for the same period of the confinement.

Turley writes on his website that “the petition for a writ of certiorari appeals the decision of the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. The lower court refused to consider evidence that the prosecutors violated Dr. Al-Arian’s 2006 plea agreement in ordering him to testify before a Virginia grand jury. Dr. Al-Arian has asked for an evidentiary hearing to establish that he was expressly promised by the Justice Department that he would not have to cooperate in any way after his plea agreement. Indeed, he accepted a longer sentence to secure that concession. The final standard cooperation language was indeed removed from the agreement, but the court refused to consider evidence outside of the agreement showing that the removal of the language was due to an express promise by the government. Other circuits allow for such evidence to be considered — producing a split in the circuits. The Eleventh Circuit decision effectively allows the Justice Department to get away with a classic “bait and switch” tactic where the government assures a defendant that a condition is accepted and then, after he pleads guilty, refuses to comply with the condition because it was not expressly added to the plea agreement.”

Why the continued efforts to destroy Dr al-Arian? He’s just one more object lesson to the world of what can happen to a Muslim, a Palestinian, who tried with some success to combat ignorance and prejudice in the Middle Eastern debate and who established his innocence to a jury on the grave charges the US government spent millions to sustain in that Florida court. His assailants in the Justice Department have probably anticipated with relish that al-Arian would succumb to malnutrition and illness in one of the holes into which he has been flung. They were mistaken. Sustained by his family, capable attorneys and vast sympathy across the world, Dr al-Arian has stayed in the ring with his fearsome and vindictive persecutors. Every word of support and encouragement  (to is important.


Should The Enquirer Be Dogging John Edwards?

Not for the first time in recent political history an American standing in the checkout line at a supermarket  is better informed on a hot issue of the day than the nation’s elites  who send their maids to buy food and get their news from the New York Times and the Washington Post.

So far as the precise historical record goes, former US senator John Edwards, 55, began his slide into public scandal back on August 25, 2007, when the New York Post’s Page 6 gossip column ran a blind item asking, “Which political candidate enjoys visiting New York because he has a girlfriend who lives downtown? The pol tells her he’ll marry her when his current wife is out of the picture.”

Now, who planted that item? One obvious suspect would be the Hillary Clinton campaign. (One pro-Edwards blogger at the time even noted excitedly that Roger Altman, a well known HRC supporter, was on the board of America Media, which owns the Enquirer. )  At that time the millionaire lawyer Edwards was still in contention for the Democratic nomination despite well-founded gibes that his populist rhetoric sounded odd when spouted from a man who had $400 haircuts and a 28,000 square foot house in his home state of North Carolina. The Post’s item kicked off a round of speculation on the web, homing in on the chilling phrase “out of the picture”, taken by some to refer to Edward’s wife Elizabeth, very seriously ill with breast cancer.

On July 21 the Enquirer staked out an Edwards visit to Rielle  Hunter and baby at the Beverly Hilton hotel in Los Angeles , eventually inducing the white-faced former U.S. Senator from North Carolina to seek sanctuary in a downstairs lavatory. Too bad the U.S. Senator from Idaho, Larry Craig, wasn’t hopefully tapping on the partition. They could have “shared together”, as the saying goes, about gossipy papers and the inconveniences of being a public figure.

The pace is now quickening. Last Tuesday, under the headline “John Edwards Hush Money to Mistress”, the Enquirer relayed from its spies inside the Hunter camp the news that one of Edward’s rich friends was helping out with scads of cash, with $15,000 a month going to Hunter. This same flush friend is – according to the Enquirer — also shoveling cash to Edwards’ pal and former aide Andrew Young – who  tried to take the heat off the ex-Senator by claiming to the Enquirer he is the father of Rielle’s baby.  A puzzle here is that Edwards himself is a millionaire, presumably with ample resources to cover such incidental expenses.

Right from the start, the Enquirer has obviously had an informant, possibly  suborned by robust wads of cash, relaying emails and info from inside the Edwards-Hunter circle, apparently on an almost real-time basis. It’s odd indeed that this informant has not been detected and thrown out of the inner circle by the beleagured couple.

Some – particularly those with political sympathies for Edwards — deprecate the Enquirer’s rampages as outrageous intrusions into privacy. But just suppose the Edwards campaign had prospered and he was now the nominee of the Democratic Party. In the aftermath of the Democratic convention the Repubicans could claim that that the well coiffed “populist” had not only a very ill wife but had consoled himself with a mistress now  mothering his child. Exit Edwards and probably all hopes of the Democrats capturing the White House.  Last fall, Edwards was devoting all his efforts to winning the nomination, knowing as he did so that one day his linen would receive a public airing and his candidacy doomed. And if he didn’t admit that to himself – as people indulging in suicidal political behavior often  manage not to do – then he was an idiot, just as he was an idiot to have a $400 haircut and pretend to be a man who understood the woes of the ordinary folk. He lost me right there.

As things stand Edward this very July was advertising himself as a vice-presidetial prospect, and if not that that certainly a potential cabinet member in an Obama administration.

Untrue Confessions

Why do people confess, even when they’re innocent? Why do people credulously believe the informal promise of the police detective interrogating them that if they only cop a plea, then the prosecution will go easy on them?  Down the centuries intelligent people have said that confessions of guilt should never be accepted at their face value.

In a very important piece in our latest CounterPunch newsletter Ruth Horowitz writes fascinatingly about false confessions either volunteered for complicated psychological reasons or extorted by police interrogators by guile and fraud. As Hortwitz writes, “After Charles Lindbergh’s baby was abducted, over 200 people walked into police stations and said they were the kidnapper. More than 30 told authorities they were the murderer of a woman who came to be known as “The Black Dahlia” – a Hollywood actress whose mutilated body was found in a vacant lot in Los Angeles in the 1940s. In a case that truly smacks of internalized abjection and desire for quick death, Heinrich Himmler lost his pipe while visiting a concentration camp during World War II. A search ensued, but on returning to his car Himmler found the pipe on his seat. Meanwhile, the camp commandant reported that six prisoners had already confessed to stealing it.”

How this plays out in the U.S. justice system and how the abuses of coerced confessions can be curbed is Hertzberg’s theme, starting with an appalling case, reminiscent of the “Satanic abuse” trials of the late ’80s and ’90s, where an obviously innocent immigrant, Khemwatie  Bedessie, was bullied into a “confession” that has put her in prison for 25 years.

Also in this terrific new issue of our newsletter, subscribers can read Marcus Rediker’s report of popular resistance in the comunas in Medellín, Colombia.   Here at  CounterPunch we greatly admire Rediker for his book The Slave Ship, also for his tremendous book written with CounterPuncher Peter Linebaugh, The Many-Headed Hydra. We’re excited to have Marcus aboard. Also you can read me on the Bank of New York’s $7.5 billion money-washing activities. It’s a particularly gratifying story for all those wise souls who see the words “America’s oldest bank”, “founded by Alexander Hamilton”, and feel instinctively that there’s probably dirty work at the cross-roads. Indeed there was.

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Footnote: An earlier version of the al-Arian item ran in The Nation.





Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined!, A Colossal Wreck and An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents are available from CounterPunch.