Laila al-Arian, a writer and producer for Al Jazeera English, writes for The Nation and Alternet about the ongoing US Government prosecution of her father, Professor Sami al-Arian:
For a while, the phone stopped ringing. Not completely—reporters called, but many old friends did not.
That’s how my mother remembers the days following my father’s arrest on terrorism charges in February 2003. At dawn, a team of FBI agents and police, clad in black uniforms, descended on my family’s three-bedroom apartment in Tampa, Florida. They arrested my father and carted away dozens of boxes filled with our personal possessions, from school report cards to laptop computers and journals.
My father, Sami Al-Arian, a professor at the University of South Florida, was indicted on fifty-three counts of supporting the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which had been designated by the government as a terrorist group. The conspiracy case, which involved three other Palestinian men, was based largely on my father’s charitable contributions, associations, speeches and other First Amendment–protected activities. Prosecutors would introduce as evidence books my father owned, magazines he edited, conferences he organized and, particularly bizarre, a dream one of his co-defendants had about him. My father faced multiple life sentences plus 225 years if convicted. The charges against him included conspiracy to kill and maim persons abroad, yet prosecutors freely admitted that my father had no connection to any violence.
As the government built its case against my father, FBI agents interrogated one Muslim family after another. Overwhelming fear pervaded the community. My father, a pillar of that community, had founded and run an Islamic school near the mosque where he also led prayers. After the arrest, my mother, Nahla, was asked to withdraw my younger siblings from the school that she and my father had worked so hard to build. Returning for a visit, my mother was asked what she was doing there. Shopping for groceries, she saw a longtime friend turn her back to avoid talking to her. “It was shocking and depressing,” my mother recalls.
One day my mother read a letter to a local newspaper that condemned my father’s harsh prison conditions and the one-sided media coverage of his case. The author said my father had the right to a presumption of innocence, adding, “History will teach us that what can happen to one man can happen to any of us. Are we going to sit back and watch, or are we going to speak up?” The letter was signed by Melva Underbakke, a peace activist and English language instructor who also worked at the University of South Florida. My mother called to thank her. They became friends, and Mel, as she became known to us, formed a group called Friends of Human Rights to support my father.
Mel introduced his case to her fellow congregants at the progressive First United Church of Christ. Many joined the cause, including the church’s minister, the Rev. Warren Clark, who began visiting my father weekly in a ritual he dubbed “Tuesdays with Sami". The two men exchanged jokes, as well as stories from the Koran and Bible about perseverance in adversity.
My father’s trial lasted six months. Prosecutors presented seventy-five witnesses, including nearly two dozen from Israel. Their testimony centered on attacks that even the US government acknowledged my father had nothing to do with. The prosecutors also introduced 400 phone calls out of nearly half a million that the FBI had recorded over a decade of relentless, indiscriminate surveillance of my family. My father’s attorneys did not call a single witness: their defense was the First Amendment.
“This was a political case, discriminatory both in its selection of Dr. Al-Arian as a Palestinian Muslim and of his critical speech against Israel,” said Linda Moreno, one of my father’s trial attorneys. “The case was about speech, popular to some and unpopular to others.”
Outside the courthouse, Friends of Human Rights held weekly protests under the scorching Florida sun, carrying banners that read “Everyone Deserves a Fair Trial” and “Charity to Orphans and Widows Is Not a Crime.” Inside the courthouse, my siblings and I studied the jurors, looking for signs of how they would decide. We dreaded the day they would return a verdict, but Mel was optimistic. Taking walks on the boardwalk and along the nature trails of a neighborhood park, she would reassure my mother that the jury would find my father innocent.
On December 6, 2005, they did just that, acquitting my father on eight of seventeen counts and voting ten to two to acquit him on the rest. The judge, who did not disguise his bias in favor of the prosecution, initially instructed the jurors to keep deliberating, but on realizing that they were leaning toward acquittal, he reversed course and told them to stop. When one juror was asked why he didn’t vote to convict, he stated simply, “I didn’t see the evidence.”
It’s been nearly a decade since my father’s case began, yet he has been under house arrest since 2008. A Virginia prosecutor, Gordon Kromberg, created a pretext to bring new charges against him by calling him to testify before a grand jury investigating a Muslim think tank. It’s the same strategy Kromberg used in the case of Sabri Benkahla, a Virginia man who was acquitted in a 2004 terrorism case: unhappy with the result, Kromberg summoned Benkahla to testify before a grand jury and then charged him with making false statements. Benkahla was sentenced to ten years in prison.
This potential perjury trap put my father in a Catch-22 that violates the plea agreement he made in Florida: testify and possibly be charged with perjury; refuse and be charged with criminal contempt. My father insisted on upholding his plea deal, filing to dismiss the case based on the fact that the government had reneged on its promise to end all dealings with him, including forcing him to cooperate in other cases. My father is now waiting for a judge to rule on whether the case will proceed.
In the meantime, Mel has continued to advocate on behalf of those she believes were wrongly accused of terrorist activities in the wake of 9/11. She has traveled across the country to screen the award-winning documentary, USA vs. Al-Arian, about my father’s case, as well as to speak, often before church groups, about other cases. Mel says she does not think unfair prosecutions, such as those based on speech and association, will be confined to Muslims.
“I think everybody is at risk at this point,” she said. “If we all speak up together, then we’re all safer.”