In 2003, Sami Al-Arian was a professor at the University of South Florida, a legal resident of the U.S. since 1975, and one of the most prominent Palestinian civil rights activists in the U.S. That year, the course of his life was altered irrevocably when he was indicted on highly controversial terrorism charges by then Attorney General John Ashcroft. These charges commenced a decade-long campaign of government persecution in which Al-Arian was systematically denied his freedom and saw his personal and professional life effectively destroyed.
Despite the personal harm he suffered and the intense surveillance to which he had been subjected since as early as 1993, the government ultimately failed to produce any evidence of Al-Arian’s involvement in terrorist activities, instead relying at trial overwhelmingly on the pro-Palestinian writing and speaking he had done over the years.
His ordeal finally ended last night, 12 years after it began, as Al-Arian was deported yesterday at midnight (EST) from the United States to Turkey. His deportation was part of a 2006 plea bargain to which he acquiesced in order, he told The Intercept last night while at the airport preparing to leave the U.S., to “conclude his case and bring an end to his family’s suffering.” Al-Arian added: “I came to the United States for freedom, but four decades later, I am leaving to gain my freedom.”
A 2003 Justice Department investigation led by Ashcroft allegedly implicated Al-Arian and 8 other men in supporting Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), a group which had been designated a terrorist organization under the Clinton administration for carrying out bombings and other attacks in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian Territories. Ironically, Al-Arian had been a prominent supporter of Clinton, and even met Clinton in the White House. He once remarked to The Intercept that the multiple occasions when he stood in very close proximity to the U.S. President should, by itself, demonstrate how ludicrous were the “terrorist” allegations. In 2000, he supported the Bush campaign (after Bush denounced racial profiling).
Al-Arian, while a Professor at the University of South Florida, was indicted on multiple counts of providing “material support” to the group and fundraising on their behalf in the United States. In the press conference announcing the indictment, Ashcroft claimed that Al-Arian and his co-defendants “financed, extolled and assisted acts of terror,” and praised the recently passed Patriot Act as being instrumental to helping bring about the charges.
The charges were part of a broader post-9/11 campaign to by the U.S. Government to criminalize aid and support to Palestinians, as exemplified by the successful prosecution of five officials of what had been the largest Muslim charity in the U.S., the Holy Land Foundation. Those charity officials are now serving decades in prison for sending money to Palestinians which, it was alleged, made its way to designated terror groups in the Occupied Territories.
For most of the three years after his arrest, Al-Arian was kept in solitary confinement awaiting trial. During this time, he was regularly subjected to strip-searches, denied normal visitation rights with his family, and allegedly abused by prison staff. Amnesty International denounced the circumstances of his detention as “gratuitously punitive” and in violation of international standards on the treatment of prisoners.
When Al-Arian’s case did finally reach trial after years of harsh imprisonment, prosecutors failed to convict Al-Arian on even one charge brought against him. Jurors voted to acquit him on the most serious counts he faced and deadlocked on the remainder of the indictments.
The outcome was hugely embarrassing for the U.S. Government. Despite having amassed over 20,000 hours of phone conversations and hundreds of fax messages from over a decade of surveilling Al-Arian, the DOJ – even with all the advantages they enjoyed in terrorism cases in 2003 (and continue to enjoy today) – was unable to convince a jury Al-Arian was the arch-terrorist they had very publicly proclaimed him to be.
Indeed, instead of producing evidence that Al-Arian was involved in actual “terrorism,” the government attempted to use as evidence copies of books and magazines Al-Arian had owned in a failed effort to convince the jury to convict him of apparent thought crimes.
This effort failed and a jury ruled to acquit Al-Arian on 8 out of 17 charges while failing to come to a verdict on the remainder.
Al-Arian agreed to a plea bargain on the remaining charges by pleading guilty to one count of providing “contributions, goods or services” to PIJ, a decision he says he undertook out of a desire to end the government’s ongoing persecution of him and win his release from prison.
Despite this plea, Al-Arian was not released from prison.
Instead, in 2007, shortly before he expected to leave jail and begin likely deportation proceedings, the government brought a new set of charges against him for refusing to testify in another trial against a Virginia-based Islamic think tank. Among several reasons he provided for refusing to testify against the group, he stated his belief that the organization was innocent of terrorism charges and, according to his lawyer, Jonathan Turley, “he doesn’t want them to be persecuted the way he was.” His lawyers also worried that any testimony he gave in that other case would allow the DOJ to bring wholly new charges against him for perjury.
For his refusal to testify, Al-Arian was sentenced to an additional 18 months in prison on civil contempt charges, the maximum allowed by law. Al-Arian served this added time only to be charged at the end of his sentence once again with additional criminal contempt charges stemming from the same case.
In Al-Arian’s description, these charges were in contravention of the plea deal he had previously agreed to with the government. As he told The Intercept, “They reneged on their end of the deal when they brought me to Virginia to try to force me to testify in another, unrelated case. It was a perjury trap. I refused to testify, so they charged me with criminal contempt.”
During the course of his imprisonment Al-Arian undertook a hunger strike to protest his ongoing persecution, losing 53 pounds in the process and being reduced to a state in which he was no longer able to walk or speak in a normal cadence. In court appearances, observers were shocked by his physical appearance, with representatives from the U.S. Marshals Service publicly vowing to subject him to force-feeding if his hunger strike if his condition continued to visibly deteriorate.
After his indictment for criminal contempt, a federal judge eventually ordered that Al-Arian to spend the duration of the court proceedings under house arrest. But the judge then proceeded to hold, rather than rule on, his motion to dismiss the indictment, freezing the case in place for years as he was consigned to house arrest. There he languished, confined to his small family apartment as his court case took years to work its way through the system.
In 2014, the federal government quietly and unceremoniously dropped all of their charges against Al-Arian. After 11 years of persecution which left his once-promising career in academia and public advocacy in shambles, Al-Arian was “free” to be deported from the country where he had spent 40 years of his life and raised his family. As a stateless Palestinian, he was forced to find another country where he could go, and ultimately was able to leave for Turkey, where he was expected to arrive today.
Speaking to The Intercept, Al-Arian said that he harbored no resentment despite his ordeal and that he now feels “at peace” with the conclusion of his legal ordeal.
Describing his visceral, firsthand experience of America’s eroding democratic values Al-Arian said, “I came to the United States because I valued living as a free person, one who is able to advocate in a democratic society. Unfortunately, the U.S. has been turning into a less free society, a police and surveillance state, especially after 9/11.”
“However, I’m very encouraged by the millions of Americans who are pushing back against the forces of intolerance and exclusionary politics. I leave hopeful that the tide is turning because as history has seen, when the truth is made known to them, Americans do not support oppression and discrimination.”
This interview was first published by The Intercept.