Sami Al-Arian is in dire condition. The jailed Palestinian professor has lost over 50 pounds as he enters the 54th day of a hunger strike to protest the circumstances of his continued imprisonment. We speak with his wife, Nahla Al-Arian. [includes rush transcript]
JUAN GONZALEZ: Sami Al-Arian is in dire condition. The jailed Palestinian professor has lost over 50 pounds, as he enters the 54th day of a hunger strike to protest the circumstances of his continued imprisonment. Al-Arian has spent the past four years in jail, despite a jury’s failure over a year ago to return a single guilty verdict on any of the 17 charges brought against him. He eventually signed a plea deal with the government in exchange for being released and deported.
AMY GOODMAN: This past January, with just three months left before his scheduled release, a judge found him in contempt after he refused to testify before a Virginia grand jury. The date of his release could now be extended by a year and a half. On January 22, Al-Arian, who is a diabetic, stopped eating in protest. Last month, he was transferred to the federal medical facility in Butner, [North Carolina], as his health deteriorated. A week before his transfer, we spoke with Sami Al-Arian from prison in his first broadcast interview since his 2003 arrest.
In a moment, we’ll speak with his wife. But now, we turn to an excerpt of that interview with Professor Sami Al-Arian. He explained why he was on a hunger strike.
SAMI AL-ARIAN: Well, I believe that freedom and human dignity are more precious than life itself. In essence, I’m taking a principled stand, that I’m willing to endure whatever it takes to win my freedom. I’m also protesting the continuous harassment campaign by the government against me because of my political beliefs. This campaign was supposed to have ended when we concluded the plea deal last year, but unfortunately it hasn’t. And if you’d like, I can elaborate further on that.
AMY GOODMAN: Yes, please do.
SAMI AL-ARIAN: OK. Well, you know, after two-and-a-half years in pretrial detention with Guantanamo-like conditions, mostly under 23-hour lockdowns, followed by a six-month trial with eighty witnesses, including 21 from Israel, thousands of documents, phone interceptions, physical surveillance, websites, hearsay evidence, anything and everything they could think of, preceded by 12 years of investigations, tens of millions of dollars, some even say over $80 million spent on this investigation, with 94 charges against me and my co-defendants and with my defense only being four words — "I rest my case" — how did the jury see it? They gave them zero convictions.
Unfortunately, however, the judge stopped the deliberations, because of a distressed juror, and they ended up with some hung counts, although they were mostly 10 to two in my favor. What happened was that the government had the power to retry me on these hung counts. My attorneys had prior commitments and would have left, which meant I probably would have to hire a new legal team and wait perhaps for another year or more for a new trial.
Meanwhile, in my attorneys’ judgment, the government was desperate to settle after its total defeat. I was, at the time, perplexed, because I wasn’t sure what offense I would plea to. But one of my attorneys said that even if there was none, we had to invent one to get you out. I authorized them to explore this option, and they concluded a deal with essentially time served and deportation, were I to plea to giving some services to people associated with an organization on their terrorist list. And if you’d like, I could go over quickly and briefly —
AMY GOODMAN: Yes. Go through what your plea agreement was.
SAMI AL-ARIAN: Yeah. Well, number one, that I sponsored a researcher in 1994 and '95 to come to the United States to conduct research and edit a magazine, which he certainly did. Two, that I wasn't candid or forthcoming when interviewed by a journalist in November '95 — and don't ask me why this is an offense. And three, that I helped my brother-in-law to get out of prison when he was detained on secret evidence between ’97 and 2000. These are the only three things that —
AMY GOODMAN: That was Mazen Najjar?
SAMI AL-ARIAN: That was Mazen Al-Najjar, that’s correct. My main concern with this deal was that the judge got out of hand, because association is constitutionally protected. And everyone kept saying that this was just a face-saving way for the government to end this, and no one is going to object. And, indeed, you know, no one did.
Amy, during the plea negotiations, the government wanted a cooperation provision, which I totally ruled out. I told my lawyers that if they insisted, then to break off all these negotiations and proceed to a new trial. The government immediately took this off the table and never raised it again.
Now they want me to testify before a grand jury in Virginia, which is contrary to our agreement of no cooperation. We also believe that this is either a perjury or contempt trap. See, back in August of 2000, I was also subpoenaed before an immigration court, and I was asked if I believe in the freedom of Islam through violence. My answer was one word: no. But this was nonetheless one of the counts against me, which the jury acquitted me of. Now, I have been held in contempt for the total of over a month last year, and then that grand jury expired. Then they reconvened another grand jury this year, and I have been held now in contempt since January 22nd. That’s why I’m on a hunger strike.
AMY GOODMAN: Sami al-Arian, speaking from prison last month. He’s just entered the 54th day of a hunger strike. He is hospitalized. His wife Nahla Al-Arian is going to Virginia today to visit him along with their five children. She joins us now before she heads on the flight from Tampa, where she lives. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Nahla Al-Arian.
NAHLA AL-ARIAN: Thank you. Thanks so much for inviting me, especially when we see that the corporate media is completely silent concerning Sami’s case. I cannot believe that political prisoners are being treated this way in this country by the media. You know, I’m talking about corporate media here. I feel there is some kind of complicity on the side of the corporate media in supporting the government’s oppression towards Palestinian activists, especially, and political prisoners in general.
JUAN GONZALEZ: How was your husband the last time you spoke with him?
NAHLA AL-ARIAN: Well, last night I talked to him for about five minutes, and still he is very weak, and he told me he is exhausted. And, you know, he hasn’t eaten for 54 days. And that’s a lot. He lost 52 pounds. He cannot even walk. He is on a wheelchair now. And my friend went to see him last week, and then she said to me that she managed to feel the bones of his legs. So, you know, everybody who went and saw him felt shocked by the way he looks now, because he’s very, very thin.
AMY GOODMAN: The Irish hunger strikers years ago, famous, Bobby Sands and others, started to die after 60 days of being on hunger strike. What exactly is his condition? Sami Al-Arian is a diabetic, is that right?
NAHLA AL-ARIAN: Yeah, he is. He stopped taking, of course, his diabetes medicine a long time ago, because he doesn’t eat. But last time when they checked his blood sugar, it was 62, and that’s, I think, very low. They haven’t started force-feeding him. They put him in a 24-hour lockdown in a small room, and there is a camera in the room. And it’s like, you know — I don’t know — like they treat him as a lab animal or something. Why are they watching him? That’s it. They are not doing anything else besides that.
We’re very worried, and that’s why our visit — God willing — will be an end to this hunger strike. We don’t want him to continue. All of us, my children and I want to try our best to make him stop. But hopefully, that next week, next Friday, we’re going to have good news from the Fourth Circuit, because they are going to issue their ruling. And, you know, because our case is very strong, we are hopeful that they will rule in our favor and they will stop this contempt of court. So, let’s all pray for this happy ending to this miserable situation.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, you have five children?
NAHLA AL-ARIAN: Yeah.
JUAN GONZALEZ: What do you tell them? Your husband has been in jail now for four years, yet to be convicted of any crime, and yet the government continues to hold him. How do you explain all of this to them?
NAHLA AL-ARIAN: Well, my older children understand that their father is a political prisoner, and they are doing tremendous work to help their father and to speak on his behalf. And my younger children are the ones who were affected the most, because they were deprived of their father’s love and guidance, and what happened here in Tampa was so much for them. I had to send my daughter, who is 13, I had to send her to Egypt to stay with her grandmother, because she couldn’t handle some of the abuses at the public school she went to. It wasn’t easy for us. All the time I look at my home, and I feel it’s not a home anymore without Sami. I want him back. And the government wants to keep him in jail forever. And this is sadistic, you know. I cannot understand why they love to torment people this way.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, your husband said — well, just on the record, the 17 counts against him, he was not found guilty on any of them. On the majority, he was acquitted; on others, they were deadlocked. He said in a plea agreement that he had — it was understood that he would not have to cooperate with any grand jury investigation of other people. And now, there has been a grand jury impaneled. He doesn’t know how many future ones will be impaneled simply to hold him in jail if he refuses to cooperate. What would stop his hunger strike right now? And is there a point where it will become your decision? And, Nahla, will you decide to have him force-fed?
NAHLA AL-ARIAN: I will do my best to stop him from, like, fasting all this time, because we want him alive, we want his love and his support to continue, even though he’s in jail. But what’s happening is that, God willing, as I said, on Friday next week we will hear something from the Fourth Circuit. Hopefully this will make him stop the hunger strike, when we get a ruling from the Fourth Circuit, although I’m pessimistic in a way, because the atmosphere in our country is very, very depressing, especially when it comes to judges.
I don’t know what’s wrong with many, many judges here who are not really standing up to the government. But there are courageous judges, and hopefully they will rule in our favor. But even if they are not, God forbid, we have to stop Sami from, you know, killing himself, because this is not good. The government doesn’t care. The government is sending to Iraq so many soldiers, and they don’t care about their safety. How about the safety of my husband and his health? You know, this is a government that does not have any ethics, any compassion, nothing. And we’re dealing with a monster here, unfortunately.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Throughout this long ordeal, what’s your sense or your opinion about why your husband has been targeted in this way by the federal government?
NAHLA AL-ARIAN: Well, I feel, first of all, because he was very effective in talking about the Palestinian cause and in establishing ties with the larger society and in empowering the Muslim community, making them integrate into the larger society and exercise their political rights. Sami was very good in talking to everybody, helping and working with everybody, and what made things worse —
AMY GOODMAN: Also very good in supporting President Bush in his first run for office. The pictures of him and President Bush as they campaign through Florida — as Bush campaigned through Florida, Sami was with him.
NAHLA AL-ARIAN: Because Bush deceived us. Bush lied to the Muslim community. Bush gave us a picture of a compassionate person, and that’s completely the opposite. Later on, unfortunately, we found out. Al Gore was so arrogant, and he rejected talking to the Muslim community and addressing the issues that the Muslim community was worried about, such as the use of secret evidence against Muslims and Arabs. So that’s why, you know, we went to support Bush, because he’s the one who, in the second debate, came out and said we should support or we should stop the use of secret evidence and we should stop profiling Muslims and Arabs, so he was very outspoken. And that was unfortunately, you know, a very deceitful act. It wasn’t coming from his heart, as we found out later.
AMY GOODMAN: What are you calling for right now, Nahla Al-Arian? We only have 30 seconds.
NAHLA AL-ARIAN: Well, what I want is for the government to stop the abuse of the power by one of the employees there, the federal prosecutor Mr. Kromberg. He is doing this based on his ideology that is racist and anti-Arab and -Muslim.
And what we are saying to the government: Keep your promise, release Sami, deport him as you said, and let him live in peace with his wife and children. We suffered enough. They stole 10 years from our lives, not only four years that Sami spent in jail, but 10 years, because of the harassment and the campaign, the vicious campaign by the media for a long, long time. We deserve some peace. For how long they are going to torture us?
AMY GOODMAN: Nahla Al-Arian, I want to thank you very much for being with us. Nahla Al-Arian is Sami Al-Arian’s wife. She heads to see him today with her five children. They are all American citizens. That does it for our broadcast. Sami Al-Arian, the 54th day of a hunger strike; he was acquitted of eight of 17 charges against him, deadlocked on the rest; never convicted on a charge yet remains indefinitely in prison. You can look at the photographs on our website at democracynow.org.