During his appearance on Democracy Now! today, Dr. Al-Arian expressed relief that his twelve-year-long persecution in the US, where he lived for forty years, had finally come to an end.
“It feels like I’m free, finally really feeling freedom for the first time in twelve years,” Dr. Al-Arian said.
His daughter, journalist Laila Al-Arian, also appeared on the show.
“I think what people should take away from what has been a nightmare for our family is the fact that in the United States of America there’s no room for political prisoners, there’s no room for politically motivated prosecutions,” she said.
Bush election role
During the half-hour segment, Dr. Al-Arian revealed how he campaigned for George W. Bush, helping him win crucial votes from the Muslim community that would clinch his 2000 presidential election victory in the decisive state of Florida.
Dr. Al-Arian was very active politically, and had visited the White House several times during both the Bush and Clinton administrations.
Regarding his role in Bush’s election, Dr. Al-Arian said that he received a call “from someone who was very close to [Bush advisor] Karl Rove” asking how the campaign could win the endorsement of the Muslim American community.
Dr. Al-Arian told this contact that Bush needed to declare his support for proposed legislation against secret evidence being used against Arab and Muslim Americans. During the second presidential candidate debate, Dr. Al-Arian told Democracy Now!, Bush did just that, securing the support of Muslim and Arab American leaders.
His administration had invited these leaders to the White House after Bush took office for a big announcement of good news regarding the legislation.
“Unfortunately, it was on 9/11,” Dr. Al-Arian said, referring to the 11 September 2001 attacks in the US. “So that meeting never happened.”
Instead, the country went in a very different direction.
“At the time, we were protesting secret evidence,” Dr. Al-Arian added. “What happened after 9/11 is that they were arresting people with no evidence.”
Solitary confinement and trial
After he was fired from the University of South Florida following two years of administrative leave and a lengthy smear campaign that began with “vicious” attacks on him by right-wing Fox News pundit Bill O’Reilly, Dr. Al-Arian found himself a target of the newly passed Patriot Act.
In February 2003, as Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman explained today, “The Justice Department handed down a sweeping fifty count indictment against him and seven other men, charging them with conspiracy to commit murder, giving material support to terrorists, extortion, perjury and other offenses. He was held in solitary confinement leading up to the trial.”
That trial ended in 2005 with the jury failing to return a single guilty verdict, acquitting Dr. Al-Arian of eight of the seventeen counts he was tried on. But the government’s efforts did not end there, as the prosecution threatened a retrial of the nine charges on which the jury had deadlocked.
Dr. Al-Arian chose to spare himself a second trial.
“In the hopes of escaping an indefinite legal battle that would keep him in jail, Al-Arian opted to plead guilty for one of the less serious charges, which accused him of sending money to a Palestinian charity before the US government made it illegal to do so,” Khadijah Qamar and Hamdan Azhar recounted for The Electronic Intifada last year.
“The judge gave him a 57-month sentence, most of which he had already served, with the promise of deportation by April 2007,” Qamar and Azhar added.
Era of repression
Despite this plea deal, Dr. Al-Arian was subpoenaed for a separate prosecution and then hit with contempt charges in March 2008 and issued two more subpoenas in the following year.
Now under house arrest, Dr. Al-Arian’s case languished in the courts for years until the government finally moved to dismiss in June of last year.
Regarding the saga endured by Dr. Al-Arian, Qamar and Azhar write:
Reading the case files is an exercise in bewildering consternation. How did a man who was never convicted by a jury of his peers end up serving five years in prison and four and a half years under house arrest? Several lawyers we consulted point to the unique nature of the case, perhaps unprecedented even in the annals of bizarre government judicial practices since 11 September 2001.
The underhanded and unprecedented tactics used by government prosecutors against Al-Arian were wielded against other Palestinian activists. Humanitarians were sentenced to decades in prison in the Holy Land Five case as material support for terror convictions became the domestic front of the endless US wars and occupations abroad.
The era of political repression is not over, as shown by the recent moves to criminalize Palestine solidarity work, including at US campuses, and the recent conviction of Palestinian American community leader Rasmea Odeh.
“I’ve heard a lot from Obama, but it’s all rhetoric … after six years, I haven’t really seen much change,” Dr. Al-Arian said from Turkey today.
But he expressed happiness towards protests and whistleblowing regarding “the excesses of the surveillance and police state.”
He added: “Very rarely you get change from the top down, until people stand up and speak out and campaign and go to their congressmen and senators and administration and voice opposition to these policies, that not only is going to affect Arab Americans and Muslim Americans, it’s going to affect every American.”
This post was updated to clarify the timeline of Dr. Sami Al-Arian’s appearance on Fox News and his dismissal from the University of South Florida.