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Sami al-Arian’s Long Road to Freedom

IN A long-overdue victory, Palestinian activist Dr. Sami Al-Arian was released on bail September 2 and reunited with members of his family for the first time since his arrest in early 2003.

“[I]t feels very unbelievable and surreal that he’s finally with us after more than five-and-a-half years of being apart and of only being able to see him behind glass. It’s breathtaking, really,” his daughter, Laila Al-Arian, described her feelings to Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman.

“And the whole time, we–me and my siblings–just kept telling each other, ‘Is this a dream? Is this real?’ We couldn’t believe it. And even when we first heard the news, we were a bit skeptical, because we’ve been in this situation so many times, where we thought my father would finally be released, and he wouldn’t. So we kind of held back our happiness and joy until he was finally with us.”

Sami Al-Arian is the former University of South Florida professor who has been the victim of an ongoing government witch-hunt since the Bush administration, in the days following the September 11 attacks, accused him of using an Islamic think tank and a Muslim school and charity as a cover for raising funds to finance “terrorism” through the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

Though then-Attorney General John Ashcroft held up Al-Arian’s arrest as an essential part of the “war on terror” here at home, after a six-month trial costing more than $50 million, a Florida jury in 2006 refused to find Al-Arian guilty of a single count of the 17 charges against him.

Facing the prospect of a lengthy and costly retrial, not to mention further separation from his wife and children, Al-Arian agreed to plead guilty to a single count of the least-serious charge against him in exchange for what was supposed to be a minor additional sentence and voluntary deportation.

Instead, before his scheduled release date, Assistant U.S. Attorney Gordon Kromberg had Al-Arian moved to Virginia to try to compel his testimony in an unrelated investigation of the International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT)–despite an explicit agreement with Florida prosecutors, recorded in court transcripts, that Al-Arian would be exempt from all future testimony.

Because of his continued refusal to testify, Al-Arian has had his prison stay extended first with civil, and then criminal contempt charges. But according to his defense lawyers and family, the government’s request of his testimony is nothing more than a trap–designed to keep Al-Arian imprisoned indefinitely on contempt charges if he refuses to testify, or allow government prosecutors a reason to charge him with perjury if he were to testify.

As Laila Al-Arian noted on Democracy Now, “[W]hat we’ve learned along the way [about Gordon Kromberg]…is that he’s not really interested in the truth. What he’s interested in really is retrying the case that the government lost so badly in Florida.”

* * *

AL-ARIAN’S ORIGINAL sentence and his sentence for civil contempt ended in April, but the government has fought to keep him behind bars.

On August 8, at the most recent pre-trial hearing in his upcoming criminal contempt case, the prosecution’s bias was once again on display. At the hearing, Judge Leonie Brinkema postponed the upcoming trial until a separate appeal by Al-Arian’s lawyers could be ruled on by the U.S. Supreme Court.

In her ruling, Brinkema questioned whether prosecutors have been overzealous in filing additional charges against Al-Arian before the Supreme Court could rule, and questioned whether the most recent contempt charges violate the terms of Al-Arian’s plea agreement, which bars the Justice Department from standing in the way of Al-Arian’s deportation after he served his sentence.

When Judge Brinkema once again ordered Al-Arian released on bail into the care of his daughter Laila, the anti-Muslim racism of Assistant U.S. Attorney Kromberg was on full display.

Kromberg objected to bail, arguing that, as a Muslim woman, Laila Al-Arian–a well-respected author and activist–would be too weak and submissive to oppose any potential attempt by her father to flee. “[I]n this particular culture, she would not be able to stop him from leaving,” he stated in open court.

“[E]verybody was appalled,” Laila Al-Arian told Amy Goodman. “I think mouths dropped all over the courtroom. There were gasps. And before our lawyer even had an opportunity to say anything, the judge interrupted him and said, ‘I got this covered.’ She was appalled at what was said, and said, ‘This is not only an insult to Dr. Al-Arian and his father, this is an insult to the court.’…I just think this particular prosecutor can’t help himself from having these racist outbursts.”

Despite Brinkema rejecting Kromberg’s claim, the government moved to circumvent her order–with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) taking custody of Al-Arian, as it has in the past when it appeared that he could be released from jail.

According to ICE, since Al-Arian is technically under a deportation order, it should retain the right to keep Al-Arian in custody in order to, in theory, deport him under his original plea agreement. But ICE has never moved to deport Al-Arian when it had him in custody, instead simply holding him in detention until federal prosecutors could drag him back into court once again.

Al-Arian’s attorneys, however, recently filed a petition for habeas corpus with the court, challenging his continued unlawful detention by ICE. Brinkema then set a deadline for immigration authorities to explain their delay in releasing Al-Arian, and, according to Laila Al-Arian, “since they essentially had no response, their decision was to release him, finally.”

While an important victory for the Al-Arian family, Sami Al-Arian’s release on bail does not end his ordeal. While out on bail, he is forced to remain under house arrest at his daughter’s home. He also still faces pending criminal contempt charges, and prosecutors have shown that they are all-too-willing to go to any lengths to keep him imprisoned.

That’s why the efforts of activists–through phone calls, letters and more–will continue to be key in the coming weeks and months to winning Dr. Al-Arian’s freedom once and for all.

NICOLE COLSON lives in Chicago, where she works as a reporter for the Socialist Worker.

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NICOLE COLSON writes for the Socialist Worker.

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