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2005-12-07

Jury Acquits Jailed Palestinian Professor of Several Charges in Major Blow to Bush Administration

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A federal jury on Tuesday failed to return a single guilty verdict on any of the 51 criminal counts against former Florida professor, Sami Al-Arian and three co-defendants accused of helping to lead a Palestinian terrorist group. He remains in jail. We speak with his daughter and a journalist who has closely followed the case. [includes rush transcript]

A federal jury on Tuesday failed to return a single guilty verdict on any of the 51 criminal counts against a former Florida professor and three co-defendants accused of helping to lead a Palestinian terrorist group.

In a major defeat for Bush administration prosecutors, Sami Al-Arian was acquitted on eight of the 17 counts against him and the jury deadlocked on the rest. Three co-defendants, Sameeh Hammoudeh, Hatem Fariz and Ghassan Ballut, were also cleared of most of the charges against them.

The jury in Tampa, Florida deliberated for thirteen days before delivering its verdict. Al-Arian’s five-month trial was seen as one of the biggest courtroom tests of the search and surveillance powers granted under the Patriot Act.

Sami al-Arian will remain in jail until prosecutors decide whether to retry him on the deadlocked charges. He was arrested in February 2003 and has been imprisoned ever since. The government accused him and eight others of racketeering, conspiracy and providing material support to terrorists. The government alleged that Al-Arian used an Islamic academic think tank and a Palestinian charity to illegally funnel money to the militant group Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

Until his arrest, Al-Arian was one of the most prominent Palestinian academics and activists in the United States. He was invited to the White House during both the President Clinton and Bush administrations and he campaigned for President Bush during the 2000 election.

His indictment in 2003 was hailed by then-Attorney General John Ashcroft as one of the first triumphs of the Patriot Act. The government’s case was built on hundreds of documents, including thousands of hours of wiretapped telephone calls, intercepted e-mails and faxes and bank records gathered over a decade. Justice Department spokeswoman Tasia Scolinos said "While we respect the jury’s verdict, we stand by the evidence we presented in court."

In October 2002, just four months before he was arrested and charged, I spoke with Sami Al-Arian at an antiwar rally in Central Park. I asked him what his thoughts were about America.

  • Sami Al-Arian, interviewed October 6, 2002, New York City.

For the latest on the case of Sami Al-Arain we are joined by two guests:

  • Laila Al-Arian, eldest daughter of Sami Al-Arian.
  • John Sugg, senior editor for Creative Loafing, an Atlanta-based alternative weekly newspaper. He has closely followed the Sami Al-Arian for the past 10 years and interviewed him last month.

Previous coverage:Jailed Palestinian Prof. Sami Al-Arian Dominates Florida Senate Race
- The Case of Sami Al-Arian
- Outspoken Palestinian Professor Sami Al-Arian Indicted Yesterday By Ashcroft On Charges of Material Support to Terrorists
- INS Arrests a Palestinian Teacher in Florida for Supposed Involvement with Terrorist Organizations

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: In October 2002, just four months before he was arrested and charged, I spoke with Sami Al-Arian at an anti-war rally in Central Park here in New York. I asked him about his thoughts on America.

SAMI AL-ARIAN: You have mixed feelings. I mean, here’s one feeling where you have thousands of people coming together basically protesting the wars. You don’t have that in many countries, especially in the Middle East. You don’t have that freedom. Here in America, I was allowed, yes, we were dealt with, you know, unjustly but I was — the system allows me to fight back and even win. And that’s a great tribute.

At the same time, you wouldn’t think in the United States, after so many years of experience of injustice, of really rolling to the right, that these things would come back again. I mean, after reading what happened to the Japanese, the McCarthy era, the COINTELPRO program, all of these, you think people have learned the lessons, but it looks like we haven’t. We come back and repeat the same mistakes, and the only way again to win is to fight back and organize and mobilize the people.

AMY GOODMAN: Sami Al-Arian speaking in October 2002. We are joined on the phone from Florida now by Sami Al-Arian’s daughter, Laila, and on the line from Atlanta, John Sugg, Senior Editor for Creative Loafing, an Atlanta-based alternative weekly newspaper. We begin with Sami Al-Arian’s daughter. And I want to welcome to you to Democracy Now!, Laila. Your response to the acquittal on the major charges against your father?

LAILA AL-ARIAN: We’re absolutely thrilled. This is the best thing we could have asked for, and we’re just trying to get on with life right now.

AMY GOODMAN: Were you surprised?

LAILA AL-ARIAN: We weren’t surprised in the sense that we knew that my father was completely innocent of all of the accusations against him, but we were definitely very pleased that the jury was able to see that there was no evidence against him presented in court.

AMY GOODMAN: John Sugg, you have been covering this story since Sami Al-Arian was arrested. Your response, as you covered this trial extensively?

JOHN SUGG: No, I have been covering the story since it first broke in 1995, and my response, I love the Justice Department’s spokesman saying they stand on their evidence. Well, the clear evidence is that they don’t have a leg to stand on. I mean, you know, everybody from Chertoff, Ashcroft on down to the Justice Department, and especially the prosecutors in Tampa, should be sent to school to study the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, because all they ever did in this trial was show that Sami was an ardent advocate for his people. And, you know, they didn’t show any money went to bad guys. They didn’t show that Sami received any money from bad guys. All they did was to simply show that Sami exercised his First Amendment rights.

AMY GOODMAN: And yet, he has been held for almost three years. What have been the conditions under which he has been held in jail, John Sugg? You went to visit him just a few weeks ago.

JOHN SUGG: I did. Now, I didn’t see the worst conditions. The worst conditions that Sami endured were at Coleman Federal Correctional Institute, such things as when he went to meet with his lawyers, the guards refused to carry his legal papers, and they refused to let him carry them normally. His hands were handcuffed behind his back. He was forced to back up and flip — bend over like an animal and flip the papers on his back, and then take them to see his lawyers in that position. I mean, you know, this is just clearly the most un-American stuff in the world. Sami should be released from jail today. And by the way, one thing, there will be a hearing to get bail for Sami this week, I hope.

AMY GOODMAN: And the three co-defendants?

JOHN SUGG: Well, these people were bit players, at best. I mean, Sami did a lot of things. I mean, he spoke for his people. He was a consultant to the — well, he wasn’t a consultant, but the FBI came to him to ask him questions about what Muslims and Arabs feel. He spoke at MacDill Air Force Base on a number of occasions, talking to large groups of American military and intelligence officers about what the conditions are in the Middle East. This was a guy who took his — what he felt and believed on the road to anybody that would listen, including congressmen.

Part of this trial, by the way, is that — that needs to be said is that this was a heavily biased trial. The fact that the prosecution lost everything, considering the bias that was just built into this trial, the jury was selected from a city which has been inundated for a decade by propaganda from Steve Emerson, the alleged terrorism expert from the Tampa Tribune, and others, against Al-Arian. Al-Arian wasn’t allowed to do things like introduce wiretaps. The government could introduce all of the wiretaps that they wanted to, but Al-Arian wasn’t able to introduce the same wiretaps. He couldn’t show the context of his conversations unless he agreed to go on the stand, which was a tactic of the government.

The judge ruled in so many bias rulings, and the greatest one was that Al-Arian and his co-defendants were not allowed to make any statement about the conditions of the Palestinian people. They weren’t allowed to describe the decades of military occupation. Even in final arguments, where the government’s own documents mentioned UN Resolution 242, Al-Arian’s lawyers were not able to explain to the jury what 242 meant, you know, which would require Israel to withdraw to the 1967 borders. Things like that. I mean, the only deaths that were talked about in this trial were the deaths of Israelis, which are tragic — okay? — but the fact that many more Palestinians have been killed, many more Palestinian innocents have been killed, was never heard by the jury at this trial.

AMY GOODMAN: John Sugg, didn’t the case of Sami Al-Arian also weigh into the Florida Senate race?

JOHN SUGG: Well, most definitely, it did. Betty Castor, a very fine Florida politician, she had held a number of offices. She was in a primary race, first came up where her opponent brought up the fact that she didn’t do enough to get rid of Al-Arian from the University of South Florida, where she had been president. And later, she lost the race, and Al-Arian was a major factor, but, in fact, Betty Castor had done exactly what a responsible public servant should do. She had retained the services of a former president of the American Bar Association to go out and investigate the matter after Steve Emerson and the Tampa Tribune started their jihad against Al-Arian. And the president of the American Bar Association, the former president, found no reason, no cause to say that there was wrongdoing.

She suspended Al-Arian during the investigation. She tried to protect her campus. And by the way, the only terrorism, actual terrorism, that happened during this whole episode was a radical supporter of Israel made bomb threats on the university and tried to blame them on Al-Arian. So, I mean, Betty Castor, you know, probably would have been the U.S. Senator now had it not been for this case, which was, you know, the way that the Republicans smear people nowadays. So, yeah, it did figure very much into it.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, John Sugg, I want to thank you for being with us, Senior Editor for Creative Loafing, has been following this case for a decade; and Laila Al-Arian, the eldest daughter of Sami Al-Arian, as we continue to follow this case.

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