The case of Palestinian professor and activist Sami Al-Arian took another turn this week when a federal judge in Florida sentenced him to another year and a half in prison. We speak with his daughter, Laila Al-Arian, his attorney, Linda Moreno and journalist John Sugg who has been closely following the case. [includes rush transcript]
The case of Palestinian professor and activist Sami al-Arian took another turn this week when a federal judge in Florida sentenced him to another year and a half in prison.
Al-Arian has been at the center of one of the most closely watched–and controversial–post 9/11 prosecutions. He was arrested in February 2003 and accused of being a leader of the militant group Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
The government’s case against Al-Arian included 11 years of FBI wiretaps and searches, three years of trial preparation by federal prosecutors, millions of dollars in costs and a six-month trial that ended last December.
At the end of it all, the jury failed to return a single guilty verdict on any of the 53 criminal counts brought against Al-Arian and three co-defendants. One of those co-defendants–Sameeh Hammoudeh–will join us on the phone from a Florida jail in a few minutes. He remains imprisoned despite being acquitted of all the charges against him. Al-Arian himself was acquitted on eight counts and the jury hung on nine others.
Last month, Al-Arian signed a plea agreement with prosecutors to plead guilty to a lesser version of one of the deadlocked charges, namely that he helped members of Palestinian Islamic Jihad with immigration and legal matters at a time before the State Department designated it a terrorist group.
At his sentencing on Monday, US District Judge James Moody ignored the recommendation of prosecutors and defense attorneys for a lower sentence and gave Al-Arian as much prison time as possible under the plea deal–57 months, followed by deportation.
With credit for time served, Al-Arian will spend another 18 months behind bars. He has been in prison for over three years now, much of it in solitary confinement.
It is not clear where the government would deport Al-Arian who is a Palestinian born in Kuwait and raised mostly in Egypt. He has lived in the United States for the past 30 years and holds permanent residency status. His five children were born in the US and are all American citizens. Today, one of them joins us in our firehouse studio, Lailia Al-Arian is Sami Al-Arian’s eldest daughter. We are also joined by Al-Arian’s attorney, Linda Moreno and journalist John Sugg who has been closely following the case.
- Laila Al-Arian, eldest daughter of Sami al-Arian. She is a journalism student at Columbia University.
- Linda Moreno, attorney for 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.
- Website: JohnSugg.com
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AMY GOODMAN: It’s not clear where the government would deport Al-Arian to. He is Palestinian, born in Kuwait and raised mostly in Egypt. He’s lived in the United States for the past 30 years and holds permanent residency status. His five children were born in the United States. They’re all American citizens. We’re joined in our Firehouse studio by one of them. Laila Al-Arian is Sami’s eldest daughter. She is just about to graduate from Columbia University’s School of Journalism. In a studio in Tampa, we’re joined by Linda Moreno, Sami Al-Arian’s attorney. And we’re also joined on the phone by John Sugg, senior editor for Creative Loafing, an Atlanta-based alternative weekly newspaper, who has closely followed the Al-Arian case for the past ten years.
We will begin with Laila Al-Arian. Can you describe what happened the day of the sentencing? You were there?
LAILA AL-ARIAN: Yes, I was. Basically we all went in, and there was this air of reconciliation. Everyone was really expecting a swift resolution to this painful ordeal. And my father gave a very beautiful speech, talking about his faith in the democratic system and the judicial system and how it was reinforced throughout this process. Our lawyer, Linda Moreno, also spoke very eloquently and asked that the judge give my father time served and release him. And, unfortunately, the judge kind of, you know, gave this tirade berating my father and mentioning things that were completely disproven in court, that the jury basically said were not true and acquitted my father of, and it was just a very disgraceful and just very undignified display.
AMY GOODMAN: Linda Moreno, can you amplify on what the judge said and the significance of not following the suggestion — well, it’s not necessarily a surprise — of defense attorney, you, but of the prosecution?
LINDA MORENO: It’s important to note, Amy, that the plea agreement in this case that Dr. Al-Arian signed very specifically dealt with a watered-down version of a particular conspiracy count. And what’s most important to remember about that is that the United States government in that plea agreement agreed that this was not a crime of violence, that there were no victims to the crime that Dr. Al-Arian was pleading guilty to, either direct or approximate. This, from the same United States Attorneys who had gotten up 11 months earlier and had promised an American jury that they were going to prove beyond any reasonable doubt that Dr. Al-Arian was the North American head and the most powerful person of Islamic Jihad and a terrorist financier. So, they were very clear that what we were agreeing to had nothing to do with violence.
The jury repudiated all of the evidence of violence, which was at the heart of the government’s case. And what’s interesting is that after the sentencing, some of the jurors who sat on the trial were interviewed, and, in particular, one of the jurors who was hanging for a conviction said that she did not agree with the judge’s comments and that she repudiated all of the violence in the case. So, the judge really went out on his own and ignored the jury, I think undermined the jury’s verdict, ignored the recommendation of the United States government, and decided to base his sentencing on facts that were not proven and, I think, that were somewhat intemperate.
AMY GOODMAN: The language that the judge used sounds like it echoed some of what one of the government informants said on the stand, Linda Moreno.
LINDA MORENO: Well, one of the informants, this was a paid F.B.I. snitch, who was thoroughly discredited. In cross-examination, we got him to agree that he lied in various documents, resumes, applications for work. And he would describe these lies in colors of a rainbow. That was a white lie. That was a black lie. That was a red lie. So he was thoroughly discredited. But he made a very emotional statement when he was on the stand. He said that Dr. Al-Arian sent his son to Duke University, while he sent others to be blown up. We felt that the judge eerily paraphrased this discredited snitch on the stand, and it was of concern to us.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you describe your experience in the courtroom, Laila Al-Arian? You are both a daughter — you’re also graduating as a journalism student. You’re a journalist. You were there with your two older siblings. Two of the younger children were not there. What was the courtroom like? Who comes to this trial day after day?
LAILA AL-ARIAN: Well, we were grateful to have a great number of our supporters in the Tampa community, from both the Christian and the Muslim communities. And, you know, it was just a very — like I said, just an air of reconciliation. And everyone was really looking forward to moving on with life. And, you know, we can even see it on the government’s side, that they were ready to just put this all behind them.
AMY GOODMAN: Did your mother walk out of the courtroom as the judge was speaking?
LAILA AL-ARIAN: She did walk out, yes. I mean, we thought it was a very strong statement, but she just couldn’t bear to listen to those horrible lies that he was spewing. So, it was — I mean, it definitely wasn’t easy to hear him lambaste my father and use those lies and smear him in that way.
AMY GOODMAN: John Sugg, could you put this in the context of the years that you have covered this case, reporting for Creative Loafing?
JOHN SUGG: Well, I think you have to look at what’s gone on from the very beginning, and this started in 1994 with a television report by self-described terrorism expert Steve Emerson, who most people consider to be a front for Israel’s Likud Party, in what he does. And I think that the effort has always been to silence Sami Al-Arian. I mean, Al-Arian, as you just said, the government couldn’t prove anything about him of any real significance. What he did in the specifics of the plea agreement was so incidental to the government’s claims as to be ridiculous.
I think it’s also worth noting a few other things. Alberto Gonzales was in Tampa a few days before the sentencing. Paul Perez, the U.S. Attorney there, never made an appearance in court until sentencing, and then, of course, he raced for the TV cameras to declare a victory. I mean, I think that despite the — my own opinion, I think the prosecution knew all along that this was going to be the outcome and agreed to a light sentence, knowing that the game plan would be different at the end. I mean, you know, Al-Arian has been silenced. He had something important to say. He tried to say it to everybody who would listen. And just like you were saying earlier in the show, at Brandeis University, only one side in this dispute gets an airing in America. And I think that that’s very dangerous for our democracy.
AMY GOODMAN: Laila Al-Arian?
LAILA AL-ARIAN: I completely agree with that. And even in the judge’s comments during the sentencing, you know, his whole — he kind of revealed his whole myopic view of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, in that there’s only Israeli victims and that all Palestinians are perpetrators and are terrorists. And it was just a very disturbing thing to hear coming from a federal judge.
JOHN SUGG: Well, you know, one thing that I heard during the closing arguments was when the prosecution introduced a document that mentioned U.N. Resolution 242, the resolution that calls for return to the borders, the original borders, the judge would not even allow the defense to explain to the jury what 242 meant. The judge would not let any testimony about the plight of the Palestinians be entered into this trial. Had Martin Luther King been on trial he would not have been able to have mentioned lynchings and Jim Crow. That’s how ridiculous this courtroom was.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to John Sugg, senior editor for Creative Loafing, who has been following this trial — it’s a newspaper based in Tampa and Atlanta, an alternative weekly newspaper; Laila Al-Arian, daughter of Sami Al-Arian; as well as Linda Moreno, the attorney for Sami Al-Arian. Can you talk, Linda Moreno, exactly about the plea bargain? What did Sami Al-Arian plea guilty to?
LINDA MORENO: Dr. Al-Arian pled guilty to a conspiracy, which is an agreement, a conspiracy to provide services to associates of the Islamic Jihad. And essentially what he did, for the most part, was assist in the legal defense of his brother-in-law, Mazen Al-Najjar, in Mazen’s own unconstitutional detention hearing. He also helped associates, colleagues with immigration, with the immigration process. So this was a conspiracy charge that Dr. Al-Arian pled to. I will tell you that this plea agreement was something that was vigorously negotiated on both sides. And there were certain things that Sami Al-Arian would never have pled guilty to, the first of which was any responsibility whatsoever for any violence.
AMY GOODMAN: Weren’t there a lot of images of violence shown during the trial?
LINDA MORENO: There were. The government was allowed to present videos of the bus bombings, live testimony of victims or survivors, eyewitnesses of certain bombings around the Occupied Territories. Indeed, Alisa Flato’s father testified. We did not cross-examine any of those witnesses, because our position was —
AMY GOODMAN: She was killed. She was killed in a suicide bombing attack?
LINDA MORENO: She was. And her father, who testifies apparently at many of these trials, sought to try to attribute some responsibility to Dr. Al-Arian through his testimony. So the government put on what they believed was their very potent, sexy, if you will, violent case, which the jury completely repudiated. The jury felt that Dr. Al-Arian had nothing to do with that violence. And we felt that was a very powerful message back to the government.
They still tried in the plea negotiations to have the violence inserted. In fact, at one point they wanted Dr. Al-Arian to plead guilty and pay restitution for all victims of violence, of conduct that was even uncharged. That was immediately, of course, rejected and rebuked. And Dr. Al-Arian was perfectly willing and able to represent himself, if need be, against the United States government, and I dare say he would have won the second time around.
This plea was an effort for closure, closure for the family, a family who has suffered and been traumatized, not only for the last three years, but really more for the last decade, with this campaign and witch-hunt that has gone on in the Tampa community, especially by the newspaper, the Tampa Tribune. So, this was an attempt for closure and, indeed, for reconciliation. It was unfortunate that it ended the way it did. But I want to tell you I was very proud of my client and his very moving statements to the court. We felt that we ended on a very positive note.
AMY GOODMAN: Linda Moreno, I want to thank you for being with us, lawyer for Sami Al-Arian, joining us from PBS station in Tampa, WEDU. Laila Al-Arian, stay with us, daughter of Sami Al-Arian, here in New York. She just flew up from the sentencing. John Sugg will remain with us on the line. And we’ll be joined by the co-defendant of Sami Al-Arian. We’ll be joined by Sameeh Hammoudeh, who remains in jail right now, is detained by ICE, Immigration and Customs Enforcement. And we’ll speak with his daughter in Jordan.
AMY GOODMAN: Sameeh Hammoudeh joins us on the line right now from the Manatee County Jail in Bradenton, Florida. We welcome you to Democracy Now!
SAMEEH HAMMOUDEH: Thank you very much. Thank you for having me.
AMY GOODMAN: We will listen as carefully as we can. The line isn’t very good. Why are you still in jail?
SAMEEH HAMMOUDEH: Well, because the whole case is based on what we can call an abuse of power. The United States government is not only violating the international laws regarding this, but they are violating and disregarding the civil rights and the human rights inside the United States. And my case is one of these violations.
And if I want to talk about my case, it’s going to take me hours and hours, because the whole case was based on fabrication, violation — I mean fabrication, manipulation of facts, inventing even facts and events that did not even take place. The special agent who directed this case said things that never happened, never occurred. And he even — in his testimony, he changed my name to rhyme with the name of Sami Al-Arian. I mean, my name in Arabic is Sameeh, Sameeh Hammoudeh. So he changed my name to Hami, which rhymes with Sami, and whenever he was talking about Sami, he would combine me there, because he had no evidence whatsoever even to indict me.
AMY GOODMAN: Sameeh Hammoudeh, we’re having trouble hearing you, so we’re going to ask you to call back. But while we go through that, we are going to ask John Sugg to talk about your case, as well, one that he also has covered.
JOHN SUGG: Well, what you have is sort of a repeat of what started a lot of this case, and that was the illegal imprisonment of Palestinians. In the first case it was Sami Al-Arian’s brother-in-law, Mazen Al-Najjar, who was held for about four years on secret evidence. Interestingly, in that case, a federal judge, a federal immigration judge, twice reviewed the secret evidence and ordered Al-Najjar released, a decision that was ratified by Janet Reno. Twice, prosecutors from the U.S. Attorney’s office recommended that there be no prosecution brought against Al-Arian and the other defendants, and they were ignored all under the Bush administration. The prosecution was brought.
I mean, you know, we’re talking about an administration that, as the Boston Globe reported last week, where President Bush has broken something like 750 laws. I mean, this administration, you know, it defines as "illegal" what’s ever convenient, and that’s what’s happening to Hammoudeh right now. He should be out of jail. He should be allowed to leave the country. He’s being held for no reason at all. The government cannot articulate a valid reason why he’s being held.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re also joined on the phone from Jordan by Weeam Hammoudeh, who is the daughter of Sameeh Hammoudeh. Can you talk about how you ended up — excuse me, speaking to us from Ramallah — how you ended up in Ramallah, when you were staying in Florida as your father remained in jail?
WEEAM HAMMOUDEH: Well, they had agreed to a separate plea deal, like you said earlier, and part of that was deportation, and it was supposed to happen after the terrorism trial ended and the sentencing was done, if there was any sentencing. In my father’s case, obviously, since he was acquitted, there was no sentencing hearing. Then, we were given different dates. It kept getting postponed, saying that they needed clearance for my father and whatnot. And we were given three separate promises, promising us that he would be on an airplane with us.
And then, they gave us — at the end, they sent my mother a letter saying that we had until February 9th to leave the country or that they would take whatever measures that were at their disposal against her. So we bought the tickets and left, and our lawyer and us, we were also told that my father would be joining us. So when we got to the airport, he didn’t show up, and the immigration official that was there told us that he wouldn’t be on the plane with us that day, but he would be joining us within 72 hours.
So we got to Jordan and stayed in Jordan for about a week, waiting for him, because we kept getting different promises. The last thing he told us to buy him a ticket and that as long as we bought him the ticket, they would let him go or whatever, but obviously that didn’t happen either. And after that, we came to Ramallah through Jordan, and we’re here now with all our family, waiting for him to come home.
AMY GOODMAN: We have Sameeh Hammoudeh on the line with us again from jail. Have they given you any indication if it they will release you?
SAMEEH HAMMOUDEH: No. They won’t. I mean, my attorney keeps trying to call them, and every time they give him just the cold shoulder, and he’s having even trouble to communicate with the government officials.
AMY GOODMAN: John Sugg, is there any redress? Can you compare this to any other cases that you have tried? And in your interviews with the prosecution, with the government, what are you hearing?
JOHN SUGG: Well, I don’t think that there — I think that there’s reasons that they’re holding Hammoudeh that have nothing to do with whether he’s guilty or innocent of anything. I think that, you know, the same reasons, the same mentality why, you know, we hold scores of prisoners at Guantanamo, many of whom we know had no involvement in terrorism.
You know, one thing that’s important to also keep in context in this case — Linda Moreno sort of addressed it — but almost all of the activities of these men, certainly of Al-Arian, occurred before 1996, occurred in the late 1980s, early 1990s. The Tampa Tribune, which she mentioned, is very adept at failing to mention the time context of all of that, because most of what they were doing was perfectly legal, First Amendment-protected stuff.
Terrorists don’t go out there and try to draw attention to themselves. They don’t work with the F.B.I., as Al-Arian did, trying to create a better understanding of his cause and of Islam and other things. Terrorists don’t draw attention to themselves like that. I mean, whatever they were doing, they were trying to state their point of view. You can agree or disagree with their point of view, but all along this has been a case of our government making a frontal assault on civil liberties, and with Hammoudeh, it’s one more extension of that.
And that’s — I don’t think that there is any reason. I think the government is embarrassed. The government was terribly embarrassed by the verdicts in this case. They couldn’t prove a thing, and so they’re just exacting retribution now on these guys to make, you know — for retribution, revenge. And I think that that’s a very poor thing for our government to be engaged in.
AMY GOODMAN: John Sugg, Professor Al-Arian’s 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 emails, faxes, bank records, gathered over a decade.
JOHN SUGG: Right. Well, 400,000 wiretaps, and the government could find only a few hundred that pertained to anything at all. It was so ridiculous. With Hammoudeh, for example, the government claimed that every time the word "family" was mentioned that it referred to the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. I mean, these prosecutors had watched too many Godfather movies, okay? So when Hammoudeh would call up his elderly father and mother and ask about how the family was doing, the government says that they were talking about Islamic Jihad business. I mean, that’s how stupid this was.
The PATRIOT Act, almost all of the information — all of the information, I’m told, but give them a break — almost all of the information, the government has had for years, there was nothing new added by the PATRIOT Act in this case. That was a fraud, you know, perpetuated by the government to justify the prosecution.
AMY GOODMAN: Laila Al-Arian?
LAILA AL-ARIAN: Also, I wanted to say, to put this case in context, in 2003 in the first indictment, also in the superseding indictment, there were 34 counts against my father, and he was acquitted or the charges were dismissed against all of them, but one, which was extremely watered down in the plea agreement. So, you know, for the government to hail this case is just completely hypocritical and false.
AMY GOODMAN: What has this done to your family? And, Weeam, I want to ask you the same in Ramallah.
LAILA AL-ARIAN: I mean, it’s definitely devastated us. My younger siblings have basically grown up during the most important time of their lives — they’re 15 and 12 right now — without a father, and, you know, it’s just one of the worst possible things that can happen to a family is to lose their father and to see him being held in such horrible conditions.
AMY GOODMAN: You are all American citizens. Your brother went to Duke, was an aide to Congressman Bonior at the time. You are now a journalist. How has it shaped you and your view and how you will cover things?
LAILA AL-ARIAN: I guess, seeing the media coverage in our case and kind of all the false things that are printed about my father and about the trial, it’s just made me sort of cynical about kind of — I mean, I’d like to be the kind of journalist that makes sure that everything that I publish or print is 100% true, but it’s just, to me, jarring. I was just thinking about it this morning on the way here, that to see all of the, I guess, misperceptions about the case that are printed day in and day out and how they’re taken as fact by people who have never attended the trial, just reprinting falsities that my father was a leader in the PIJ or that he engaged in fundraising or that he, you know, funded the organization, etc.
AMY GOODMAN: You know Weeam.
LAILA AL-ARIAN: Yes, I do.
AMY GOODMAN: Did you both go to the trial together?
LAILA AL-ARIAN: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Weeam, how has this affected your family?
WEEAM HAMMOUDEH: I mean, along the same lines. It’s really devastated us a lot emotionally. And, I mean, I have younger siblings, like my youngest brother is turning five in two weeks, so I mean, we have three kids that are ten and under, and you know, they’ve spent three years of their lives without their father, and it’s really hard explaining to them why, especially with the youngest two, because, I mean, five and seven. When everything happened, my brother wasn’t even two years old yet. And, I mean, for the first month or so, every time the door would open, he would run out the house saying, "Baba! Baba!" waiting for my dad to get there, because that’s what he was used to, and then just after a while he stopped saying it, because I guess he got used to not seeing him, and the expectation wasn’t there anymore.
AMY GOODMAN: Sameeh Hammoudeh, the last word goes to you, as you speak to us detained in Bradenton, Florida.
SAMEEH HAMMOUDEH: Well, I will just say what the jurors found after five months of the government’s presentation. I mean, when the twelve jurors went into deliberation, they took several hours to silently examine the evidence. Then, the foreperson asked for a show of hands to determine the verdict on Hammoudeh, and without hesitation, all twelve they have their hands up for acquittal on all counts, and one of the jurors said, "Without talking about it, we had each made up our mind." I mean, they even did not discuss what the government had said about me, because they did not believe anything.
Everything was fabrication. Everything was a mere lie, sad lies. This is what they did, and this is what they are insisting on doing to me and to continue my ordeal, only because I am a stateless Palestinian, that nobody is going to care about me, nobody is going to talk about my case. I am not a Christian. I am not a Jew. I am not a citizen of a powerful country that can ask about my destiny, about why the American government is abusing my rights.
And I am very upset. I am very frustrated, and I think the American government now is taking the United States into a very dangerous situation, where they are violating everything that belongs to human dignity and to human rights. They are violating all the traditions of the United States. They are violating everything human in this life. They are turning this country to an ugly country for everyone who’s observing what they are doing, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, here inside the United States and everywhere. I mean, in an era where people are opening up to each other, nations are coming closer to each other, they are thinking about building walls, and they are encouraging Israel to establish a wall between the Jews and the Palestinians instead of encouraging the Palestinians and Israelis to talk to each other and to establish enduring peace between them.
AMY GOODMAN: Sameeh Hammoudeh, I want to thank you very much for being with us. And, Laila, last question: Where will your father be deported to after he serves his year and a half?
LAILA AL-ARIAN: We’re not actually sure of that yet, and we appeal to any country that’s willing to take a stateless Palestinian refugee to give him a home, give us a home.
AMY GOODMAN: Laila Al-Arian, thank you for joining us here in New York, Columbia journalism student, daughter of Sami Al-Arian; Weeam Hammoudeh, the daughter of Sameeh Hammoudeh — both on the line with us, Weeam waiting for her father in Ramallah; Sameeh Hammoudeh speaking to us from the Manatee County Jail in Bradenton, Florida.