Supporters of Dr. Sami Al-Arian are cautiously optimistic after several court hearings where the government was left scrambling to justify its continued campaign of persecution.
Al-Arian is the former University of South Florida professor accused after September 11 by then-Attorney General John Ashcroft of providing “material support to terrorists,” largely due to his outspoken defense of Palestinian rights.
Arrested in 2003, Al-Arian went on trial in late 2005 on charges that he used an Islamic think tank and a Muslim school and charity as a cover for raising funds to finance “terrorism.” In 2006, after a six-month trial costing taxpayers a reported $50 million, a Florida jury refused to find Al-Arian guilty on a single one of the 17 counts he was charged with. The jury acquitted Al-Arian of eight charges, including the most serious, and deadlocked on nine others; 10 of 12 jurors reportedly favored acquittal on all counts.
With prosecutors threatening a retrial, Al-Arian–who had already spent years in prison away from his wife and children, and had legal fees totaling more than $1 million–agreed to plead guilty to a single count of the least serious charge against him, in exchange for what was supposed to be a short sentence added to the time he had already been behind bars, plus voluntary deportation.
But the nightmare was only beginning. Against even government prosecutors’ recommendations, Judge James Moody sentenced Al-Arian to the maximum allowable sentence.
Then, while Al-Arian was still incarcerated, Assistant U.S. Attorney Gordon Kromberg had Al-Arian transferred to Virginia to force him to testify as a material witness in an investigation into a Muslim charity there–in defiance of an agreement with Florida prosecutors, recorded in court transcripts, that Al-Arian would be exempt from future testimony.
For Al-Arian, it was a no-win situation. Refusing to testify brought first civil, and then criminal contempt charges upon him. But had he testified, it is likely that prosecutors would have tried to charge him with “perjury” and continued his imprisonment anyway.
While in prison, Al-Arian has faced physical and verbal abuse, and racism from prison guards.
Kromberg himself made his anti-Muslim prejudice known in court. As Al-Arian’s daughter, journalist Laila Al-Arian, said in a Socialist Worker interview:
To describe where [Kromberg’s] coming from, he’s blogged about trips he’s taken to Israel and his fear of Palestinians. He’s made anti-Arab and anti-Muslim statements on the record that he’s never apologized for. During one trial in Virginia, he said “all Arabs lie”–that’s what he told the jury–and he said “don’t believe anything they tell you.”
This is a person with a lot of power and authority. Not to say that he’s the only one driving the ship–I think his bosses are supporting what he’s doing. But we know Kromberg wasn’t happy with the Florida jury’s verdict, and this was his way of trying to retry the case in Virginia.
At one point, Kromberg objected to defense attorney requests that Al-Arian not be transferred to another prison during the Muslim religious holidays of Ramadan. Kromberg reportedly said, “If [Muslims] can kill each other during Ramadan, they can appear before the grand jury, all they can’t do is eat before sunset. I believe Mr. Al-Arian’s request is part of the attempted Islamization of the American Justice System.”
And in August, when Al-Arian was finally ordered released into his daughter’s custody on bail while awaiting trial on contempt charges, Kromberg objected, claiming that, as a Muslim woman, Laila Al-Arian would be too weak and submissive to oppose any potential attempt by Dr. Al-Arian to flee.
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DESPITE THE protracted government witch-hunt against him, a campaign of support, led by the Al-Arian family and the Tampa Bay Coalition for Justice and Peace (TBCJP), has helped publicize the injustice of the case.
Although Al-Arian’s initial prison sentence ended in April 2007, and his sentence for civil contempt ended in April 2008, the government has fought to keep him behind bars on charges of criminal contempt. But to judge from recent court hearings, Kromberg may have over-reached in his attempts to keep Al-Arian imprisoned indefinitely.
Last fall, despite Kromberg’s strenuous objections (and attempts to subvert her order), Judge Leonie Brinkema ordered Al-Arian released on bail, and openly questioned whether prosecutors had been overzealous in filing additional charges, and if the criminal contempt charges themselves were a violation of the terms of Al-Arian’s plea agreement.
In February, when Brinkema repeatedly ordered Florida prosecutors and Justice Department officials to provide affidavits regarding the promises made to Al-Arian in his original plea bargain negotiations, Kromberg’s office ignored the orders three separate times, arguing that such knowledge was “irrelevant.”
Brinkema disagreed, saying she doesn’t think “the Department of Justice can compartmentalize itself…This is not one U.S. Attorney’s Office versus another…You have the United States Department of Justice…involved at both ends.”
As the TBCJP reported, the filing that Kromberg’s office did submit revealed just how split the Justice Department may have been over the case. According to TBCJP, the filing acknowledged that:
–Prosecutors in Virginia began the process of compelling Dr. Al-Arian’s appearance before a grand jury in the midst of the plea negotiations in early 2006.
–Prosecutors from Florida and the Department of Justice who were involved in the negotiations objected to this move by Kromberg.
–Virginia prosecutors conceded that, following the plea negotiations, both the defense and prosecution expected that Dr. Al-Arian would be sentenced to time served and immediately deported.
–Virginia prosecutors then exploited the fact that the judge in Florida gave Dr. Al-Arian the maximum sentence despite the government’s recommendation of time served. They pressed for the grand jury appearance even though the cooperation clause was explicitly removed from the plea agreement.
In other words, Kromberg’s own filing suggests he has been engaged in a campaign of persecution against Al-Arian, even when it meant overriding the objections of other Justice Department officials.
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IN THE most recent hearing on March 9, Kromberg argued for the fourth time that Al-Arian’s 2006 plea agreement is irrelevant to the criminal contempt charges–despite Judge Brinkema’s repeated rulings.
In a positive sign, Brinkema then opened the door to a possible dismissal of the case–giving Al-Arian’s defense lawyers 10 days to file for dismissal on the grounds that prosecutors failed to keep their promises under the plea bargain. After the defense files its motion for dismissal, prosecutors will have 10 days to respond.
According to the Associated Press, Judge Brinkema “acknowledged that the protections Al-Arian wants enforced may not have been explicitly outlined in the original agreement,” but she added that she felt the Justice Department may have duped Al-Arian into accepting the deal.
“I think there’s something more important here, and that’s the integrity of the Justice Department,” Brinkema said.
According to the Associated Press, “Brinkema has presided over several terrorism trials, and in recent years has frequently expressed frustration that the government has been untruthful in its dealings with her. She at one point threatened to toss out the government’s death penalty case against September 11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui, but later relented.”
While Brinkema’s latest ruling is a welcome one, the fight for justice for Sami Al-Arian is far from over.
In the more than seven long years since his ordeal began, Dr. Al-Arian has spent much of that time in jail and on trial, separated from his wife and children, faced with massive legal fees and held hostage to the whims of a racist zealot of a prosecutor. No matter what happens from here on out, this can’t be called “justice.”
Public support for Al-Arian will continue to be crucial in the weeks to come. As he wrote in a message to supporters when he was finally released on bail in September, “My thanks go to those in all corners of the globe who have campaigned for my case and for other prisoners of conscience. It takes courage and principle to stand up for justice at a time when fear often trumps rationality and fairness.”
NICOLE COLSON writes for the Socialist Worker.