In a Democracy Now! exclusive, Sami Al-Arian speaks to us from prison, where he is on a hunger strike. The Palestinian professor and activist’s case has been one of the most closely watched — and controversial — post-9/11 prosecutions in the United States. Al-Arian has been jailed despite a jury’s failure to return a single guilty verdict. In the four years since his arrest, Sami Al-Arian has never conducted a broadcast interview — until now. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: Sami Al-Arian has been in prison for the past four years. The Palestinian professor and activist was found not guilty over a year ago of 17 charges against him, yet he remains in jail, and the U.S. government seems unwilling to release him. Al-Arian’s case has been one of the most clearly watched — and controversial — post-9/11 prosecutions in the United States.
A respected computer science professor at the University of South Florida, Al-Arian was a leading member of the Muslim community and one of the most prominent Palestinian academics and activists in the United States. In February of 2003, he was arrested and accused of being a leader of the militant group Palestinian Islamic Jihad. The Justice Department handed down a sweeping 50-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.
At the end of the trial in December 2005, the jury failed to return a single guilty verdict. Al-Arian was acquitted on eight of 17 counts against him; the jury deadlocked on the rest. Four months after the verdict, he agreed to plead guilty to one of the remaining charges in exchange for being released and deported. At his sentencing, the judge gave Al-Arian as much prison time as possible under a plea deal: 57 months. His release date was set for April 2007. But just over two weeks ago, a judge found him in contempt for refusing a second time to testify before a grand jury in Virginia in a case involving a Muslim think tank. The date of his release could now be extended by as much as 18 months because of the ruling. Sami Al-Arian, who is a diabetic, began a hunger strike in response.
In the four years since his arrest, Sami Al-Arian has never conducted a broadcast interview—until now. In this Democracy Now! exclusive, we speak with Sami Al-Arian from prison. He called us yesterday from the Northern Neck Regional Jail in Warsaw, Virginia. He began by describing where he is being held.
SAMI AL-ARIAN: I am in, I think, somewhere in central Virginia in a jail called Northern Neck Regional Jail. I think it’s somewhere in the country, and it’s a very small jail. I hear it’s privately owned and that they hold the federal prisoners on contract. I think there are less than 500 prisoners. I’m in a part, which is not very big. It’s about 12 cells with 28 people. And that’s what it’s called. It’s a part.
AMY GOODMAN: And why are you being held there right now?
SAMI AL-ARIAN: I’m being held on contempt charges. And, you know, that’s why I’m on a hunger strike.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you tell us when you went on hunger strike?
SAMI AL-ARIAN: Yeah, I started on January 22nd, about 16 days ago.
AMY GOODMAN: Why?
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 80 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: Can you explain this case that they’re asking you to testify before a grand jury about?
SAMI AL-ARIAN: Well, I’m not really sure, because I don’t believe that — I think it’s just a justification to ask me whatever they want. You know, one of the prosecutors, who’s been after me for some time, although he’s not even from Florida — he’s from Virginia — had said to one of my attorneys that, “OK, if Sami wants to tell his story, we’re going to give him the opportunity to tell his story.” I mean, I’m not sure what that meant. But the context of which, that there is an ongoing investigation of some of the think tanks and charities in Virginia, and they want me to — they want to ask me about them, which I really haven’t had any relationship with any of these since '92 or ’93. I mean, it's been a long time, and I think it’s just a pretext to hold me either in contempt or charge me with perjury, because whatever I’m going to say, they’re going to say, “You lied.”
AMY GOODMAN: And so, how does it work? If you refuse to cooperate, how long is your jail sentence without the refusal, and what happens now?
SAMI AL-ARIAN: I’m told that on civil contempt charges, it is really in the hands of the judge. The judge has the power to lift this tomorrow, if he wants to. It is not supposed to be punishment. It’s supposed to be coercion. It can go for six months, renewed two more times, which is up to 18 months. And after that, the government can even charge you with criminal contempt, which really has no limit on how much, so this really could go on for years and years if they really want to do it. And I think it’s politically motivated, so it might very well be the case.
AMY GOODMAN: Sami Al-Arian is speaking to us from prison in Virginia in this first broadcast interview since his arrest four years ago. We’ll return to this Democracy Now! exclusive in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: We return to our exclusive conversation here on Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report, the conversation with the jailed Palestinian professor and activist Sami Al-Arian. It’s his first broadcast interview since his arrest in February of 2003. He talked about the conditions of his imprisonment.
SAMI AL-ARIAN: Well, in about a couple of weeks, it would be my fourth anniversary, so it will be four years, and it has been, you know, a difficult situation, difficult ordeal. The first 23, 24 months, I was basically in a federal penitentiary in a section of the prison called the special housing unit, which is pretty similar to Guantanamo-like conditions. I would call it Guantanamo-plus, the “plus” being giving one phone call a month and visitation by the family behind glass.
Other than that, it’s pretty much the same: very restricted, extremely restricted; physical searches and strip searches almost daily at the time, until the judge put a stop to it; in terms of availability to any outsiders, it’s almost non-existent; no phone calls allowed. Very difficult treatment within the prison system. I remember in the first couple of months, they wouldn’t even —- you have to be shackled, obviously, every time you leave your cell. And when I meet with my lawyers, they would refuse even to carry my stuff. I would carry it on my back, you know, and try to balance myself while I walk almost half a mile between my cell and where my lawyer was. So it wasn’t -—
AMY GOODMAN: You mean, your back being perpendicular to the floor?
SAMI AL-ARIAN: Exactly. Exactly.
AMY GOODMAN: You’d be bent over at a 90-degree angle, to keep your documents on your back?
SAMI AL-ARIAN: That’s right. For two months, I had to carry my legal stuff on my back, because they would refuse to carry it, and I was handcuffed from the back, so I cannot carry it myself. And that took place over the past, you know, couple of years, and then I was transferred, you know, during my trial for 15 months in a county jail, and I was the only prisoner — by the way, when I was in the federal penitentiary, I was the only pretrial person in the whole 5,000-inmate complex, because the prison officials kept telling me, “We’re not equipped for pretrials,” because I had all kinds of problems trying to listen to the conversations, they wouldn’t take me to the computers, and all kinds of problems that, you know, your show will not even be enough for me to account them and to go over them.
But after that, shortly before my trial, during my trial and post-trial, I was for 15 months in a county jail, and I was put in the female section. I was the only man in the female section. And because, of course, it’s a female section, the whole part, the whole area, I was there by myself. I would hear females; I wouldn’t see them. And then, still, I was in my cell for 23 hours locked down, although all the other cells were empty. There was no reason really for me to be in a cell for 23 hours, but that’s the kind of treatment I was getting.
AMY GOODMAN: Have you recently filed a protest with the judge about the latest conditions that you’re in?
SAMI AL-ARIAN: I have, and I explained to him, you know, for instance, I’ve been — in the past nine months I’ve been to nine different prisons. I mean, I don’t understand it. You know, I go from — when the grand jury expired last year, you know, at the end of the year, I was transferred to Atlanta for a couple of weeks, and they knew, because the prosecutors and my lawyers were saying that a new grand jury will be convened, and the same thing —- we’ll go over the same thing again. And nevertheless I was sent to Atlanta for a couple of weeks, again under 23-hour lockdown, in a very small cell with two or three people and with a roach— and rat-infested environment. You know, the rat actually ate my diabetics tack one night. And it was very difficult, because in one hour — and then they let 200 people out at one time; in one hour you’re supposed to get a shower, make a phone call, do whatever you want, and obviously have to wait in line on each and every one of them. And there is really no reason for that.
And then, I was transferred to another prison in Petersburg, Virginia, in which I had clean clothes. They took the clean clothes and gave me dirty clothes and turnout clothes. And when I protested, you know, they started giving me obscenities. I had an undershirt, and it was almost 20 degrees, and they took the undershirt and they put it in the garbage. They took my sneakers. I mean, all this kind of a treatment, really which I call harassment, is uncalled for, because that undershirt, I bought from the government, you know. I didn’t come with it. I bought it from them.
AMY GOODMAN: Which meant that you — once they took your T-shirt, it was very cold.
SAMI AL-ARIAN: Yeah. And you had to walk, you know, shackled, your legs shackled and your hands handcuffed, and you can’t even do anything about it. I mean, everybody, every guard, not only had their shirt and their coat and their cap and their gloves, but we were walking in T-shirts in 20 degrees at 4:00 or 5:00 in the morning for long distances, and were shackled. That means you cannot even run. You have to walk very slowly so you won’t fall down.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Dr. Sami Al-Arian. He’s imprisoned now in Virginia. I wanted to ask you about the judge’s comments, U.S. District Judge James Moody, who said, “You are a master manipulator. The evidence is clear in this case: You were a leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.”
SAMI AL-ARIAN: Well, I’m not really sure what motivated the judge to say what he said. He gave me the high end of the sentence, and he used language to justify that, which was basically acquitted conduct. You know, I was — he was, in essence, rebuking the findings of the jury, which I believe is unconstitutional. I mean, the evidence was very clear. When one of the jurors was asked later, you know, “How did you — why did you fail to convict this guy?” And he looked him in the eye and said, “There was no evidence.”
OPERATOR: You have one minute left to talk.
SAMI AL-ARIAN: And then, he asked him back, “What would it have taken you to convict him?” He looked him back and said, “Evidence.” I mean, what evidence was there — I mean, the freedom of association and freedom of beliefs, I think this is not a crime. A crime is, have I done anything that would have convicted me in a court of law with a jury of my peers, and the facts are very clear. They said no.
AMY GOODMAN: The judge also said your children attend the finest universities this country that this country has to offer, while you raise money to blow up the children of others.
SAMI AL-ARIAN: Again, this was count two in my indictment, and the jury acquitted me on this.
OPERATOR: You have 15 seconds left to talk.
SAMI AL-ARIAN: I will have to call you back.
AMY GOODMAN: And with that, the line cut. Sami Al-Arian did call us back. Before we go to the second part of that interview, we’re going to go right now to Sami Al-Arian’s attorney. Sami Al-Arian’s attorney is Peter Erlinder, and he joins us now from Minneapolis. We welcome you to Democracy Now!, Peter Erlinder. Peter, can you hear me?
PETER ERLINDER: Can you hear?
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I’ll ask — I will ask the cameraman in Minneapolis to repeat the question. But I would like to — why don’t we go back to the Sami Al-Arian tape, which is the second part of the interview, and then we’ll talk with the attorney who is now representing Sami Al-Arian. The second part of the interview was conducted just a few minutes after the line cut off. Sami Al-Arian called us back and continued the conversation.
AMY GOODMAN: Hi. Dr. Sami Al-Arian?
SAMI AL-ARIAN: Hi, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: Hi. So you face 57 months prison, which was the sentence the judge gave you, despite a request of prosecutors and defense attorneys for a lower sentence. But it is extended because of your refusal to cooperate with the [inaudible]?
SAMI AL-ARIAN: Correct. I mean, even in the 57 months, you don’t serve 57 months. You serve about 85 percent of them, which would have meant that I would be released in the middle of April of this year. Now, this is thing is tolled, and I would have to serve whatever the contempt sentence would be, which is up to the judge, and that, as I said, could be as long as 18 months. And in the meanwhile, I’ll be waiting to serve the rest of my sentence, when that sentence is up.
AMY GOODMAN: And then you’ll be deported?
SAMI AL-ARIAN: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Where will you go?
SAMI AL-ARIAN: I don’t know. I’m a Palestinian. I am homeless, and my family is still looking for a country. And that effort has stopped now, because we don’t know when I’ll be leaving. And my attorneys and my family were trying to find me a country before this thing started back in September.
AMY GOODMAN: Where is your brother-in-law, who was deported?
SAMI AL-ARIAN: He is in the Middle East. He is trying to live a peaceful life. I mean, he’s in a friendly country of the United States. So, and he’s trying to resume basically his life, after his ordeal.
AMY GOODMAN: Sami Al-Arian, can you talk about your activism? I mean, it might surprise some to hear that in 2000 you campaigned not just for President Bush, but with President George W. Bush in Florida. The photographs are there, and he met your children.
SAMI AL-ARIAN: Yes. Well, a lot of people only get part of the story. You know, the story obviously started with the struggle for civil rights in this country for Arabs and Muslims after the use of — the intensive use of secret evidence in the late ’90s. And I was part of a group that came together, a coalition that came together trying to fight this. And we were approaching Congress almost on a — you know, for me, sometimes on a weekly basis, traveling and trying to talk to them about this practice and the unconstitutionality of it. And we approached both campaigns, the Democrats and the Republicans, trying to do something about it. We had legislation in Congress trying to outlaw and ban the use of secret evidence.
AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean by “secret evidence”?
SAMI AL-ARIAN: Well, at that time, the government had the power — and obviously it had expanded tremendously after the PATRIOT Act — to introduce evidence that the defendant has absolutely no knowledge of. And they present it to the judge, and the judge will look at it from, you know, only one side and will make a determination. And we thought that was unconstitutional, that the person has — due process says that you have to look at the evidence and cross-examine the witnesses, and then the judge would make a determination based on both sides.
And we were pretty successful, you know. We got it passed through the Judiciary Committee, which was chaired by Henry Hyde at the time, and I had a good relationship with him. And, as I said, we approached both campaigns. And basically, my interest was basically a single issue at the time. You know, I wasn’t interested in Middle East politics. I wasn’t interested in how they deal with, you know, the different things in the world. We were interested to see which campaign would support this legislation, so we can at least get that victory for civil rights in this country.
The Gore campaign was lukewarm, because they were part of the administration that was executing this policy. The Bush campaign embraced us. And he said — I mean, he talked in the second debate about how, you know, unjustly it is to use “racial profiling,” he called it, in the name of secret evidence. And we endorsed him based on that promise. And indeed, he was going to keep his promise. A lot of people don’t even know that on 9/11 itself, at 3:00 that afternoon, had 9/11 not taken place — I mean, the events — he would have announced something as far as banning the use of secret evidence, and the Republican Congress was ready to pass that legislation if the president gave them that sign. But, you know, I am pretty critical of the policies of the Republican Congress and the Bush administration, as far as many, many other issues, especially after 9/11.
AMY GOODMAN: You’ve said that the issue has moved from secret evidence to no evidence.
SAMI AL-ARIAN: That’s right, exactly. I mean, what’s happening now is the — I mean, you just mentioned about the judge, and what evidence did the government have in order to link us to any of these murders? I mean, that’s why I’m totally perplexed by the judges. You know, and I think it has to do probably with the local coverage. You know, this case was covered immensely in the area. If you go to one of these local papers, you may find a thousand articles on me for the past, you know, dozen years or so. And there is linkage to the university that I was working in. That’s why I said from the beginning that this is a politically motivated persecution.
AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean “linkage to the university”? You mean the University of Southern Florida?
SAMI AL-ARIAN: Yeah, yeah, the University of South Florida. Well, I can talk a little bit about it, which probably will be something that no one heard before. The university was very much involved in this plot against me. As you may already know, I had been a target for many years by some groups to get me fired from the university. This effort intensified after 9/11. They found a sympathetic ear in the current president of the university, who orchestrated a board vote to dismiss me.
AMY GOODMAN: And that president was?
SAMI AL-ARIAN: Her name is Judy Genshaft. Naturally, you know, I fought back and actually won both in state and federal courts. But as the university was on the verge of being censured by the American Association of University Professors, that the president offered a large settlement, almost $1 million for me in order to resign. That happened around the third week of August in 2002. But then, she said that she needed to clear that with the board’s chairman, the board of trustees chairman, who also happened to be a fat cat Republican. The chairman of that board objected, because of the anticipated political fallout, and immediately contacted his friend, who appointed him to the position, the former governor of Florida. The governor indicated that he’d take care of the matter, but needed some time. So the university, within three days of offering me this large settlement, they came back and sued me in court in order to fire me. Meanwhile, the government contacted the White House and the former attorney general to take care of the matter. And I could see from the grand jury that it had [inaudible] tremendously in August and September and October. And as the word goes, now we know the rest of the story.
AMY GOODMAN: And the governor at the time of Florida was?
SAMI AL-ARIAN: The brother of the president, Jeb Bush. Oh, by the way, I mean, if you remember in the 2004 campaign, there was a very heated campaign between the current senator of Florida, Martinez, and the former education commissioner and the former [inaudible] president, Castor, Betty Castor, you know.
AMY GOODMAN: The former president of USF, your university.
SAMI AL-ARIAN: Yeah, and they [inaudible] around me, and then, at the time, they asked Bush, Jeb Bush, you know, “Do you know this guy?” He said, “I never met him in my life.” And we met four times. Not only we met four times, but he sent me a written letter, which is in evidence in the government’s possession, and the guys — I mean, politicians just say whatever, you know, they think will give them [inaudible] with the public without, unfortunately, any relation to the truth.
AMY GOODMAN: And he met you four times around what issue? Around a substantive issue or around you campaigning for him?
SAMI AL-ARIAN: In 2000 — I didn’t campaign for Jeb Bush, but, I mean, we talked to him. I met with him three times in 2000 and one time in 2001. And in 2001, actually, I told him that the margin of victory in Florida was really due to us, because we campaigned, and in our estimation we gave push, you know, for good or bad — people could claim, blame me for that — maybe a margin of about 14,000 votes.
AMY GOODMAN: And when you say “us,” you mean?
SAMI AL-ARIAN: I’m talking about the Arab and Muslim community in Florida. And, again, we were focused on secret evidence. We were not focused on other issues. And he said, “Can you prove it to me?” I said, “Yes, I can prove it to you.” And, you know, and so, we had this kind of discussion, and actually at the time, I think the meeting was in Orlando in the summer of — I think in April or May of 2001.
AMY GOODMAN: That was a very close race between Martinez and Castor, the university president of your university, and could decide the balance of — it was thought at the time — of the Senate.
SAMI AL-ARIAN: That’s right. And unfortunately —
AMY GOODMAN: You were featured prominently in the campaigns.
SAMI AL-ARIAN: — I was somehow in the center of this campaign, you know, and we were exploited, basically. I mean, he wanted to trash her by using me in order to win that seat.
AMY GOODMAN: That is the interview that we’re bringing you with Sami Al-Arian, our exclusive talk with him in jail in Virginia. When we come back from break, we’ll speak with his attorney, we’ll go back to the final part of the interview, and then speak with Sami Al-Arian’s daughter, Laila.
AMY GOODMAN: Before we go back to the third part of our interview with Sami Al-Arian, I want to bring in his attorney to talk about some of the legal aspects of the case. Peter Erlinder represents Sami Al-Arian in the latest contempt charges against him. He joins us from Minneapolis, where he’s a professor at the William Mitchell School of Law. Welcome to Democracy Now!
PETER ERLINDER: Good morning, Ms. Goodman. How are you?
AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Can you start off just by explaining, in the jury verdict — 17 charges against Sami Al-Arian — he was either acquitted or the jury deadlocked on every single one. Not found guilty in any of the charges against him?
PETER ERLINDER: That’s correct. The jury found him not guilty of approximately half of the charges and the more serious charges, and then with the charges in which they weren’t able to reach a verdict, they had voted 10 to two in favor of acquittal, and they were still deliberating at a time that the judge ended the deliberations. So it’s quite clear that the evidence against Dr. Al-Arian was extraordinarily weak.
And your listeners should know that his defense consisted entirely of the First Amendment. There were no witnesses, no evidence. Sami didn’t testify and his lawyers, Linda Moreno and Bill Moffitt, stood before the jury and simply said that everything this man has done is protected by the Constitution of the United States. And the jury agreed.
AMY GOODMAN: So, the judge hands down a sentence of — what was it? Fifty-seven months?
PETER ERLINDER: Correct.
AMY GOODMAN: Above the request of the prosecutors?
PETER ERLINDER: The prosecution had agreed that Dr. Al-Arian essentially should have been released shortly after the plea agreement in May of 2006, and that he would voluntarily leave the country, and he would be assisted by the Justice Department in doing that. However, when we appeared at the sentencing hearing on May 1, 2006, the judge launched into what could only be called a diatribe, in which he accused Sami publicly of all of the offenses that the jury had acquitted him of. And then he used that as a justification to reject the prosecution recommendation on the sentence and to sentence Sami to the maximum allowable under the guidelines.
Had the sentence been two or three months longer, it clearly would have been an unconstitutional sentence based on recent Supreme Court cases. We are now in the process of filing a petition for certiorari with the Supreme Court, challenging the judge’s use of acquitted conduct in this situation, too. And so, we’ll be asking the Supreme Court to decide whether this expansion of the sentence was imposed constitutionally or whether a judge, rather than a jury, can make determinations like this.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, in the plea agreement that Dr. Al-Arian reached with the state, he talked about non- cooperation, part of it.
PETER ERLINDER: Correct.
AMY GOODMAN: What does that mean? And how is it that he has now been called to testify before a grand jury?
PETER ERLINDER: Well, there’s an assistant U.S. attorney named Kromberg in the Eastern District of Virginia who actually has a pattern of calling before the grand jury or calling to his office Arab and Muslim defendants who have been acquitted. He then asks them questions and, based on what his interpretation of the truth is, then indicts them for lying either to the grand jury or lying to him as a federal official. And we understood that that was the tactic and the ploy used by this person, Kromberg. So our advice was that Dr. Al-Arian should not testify. And beyond that, the law in the Fourth Circuit, which is where the Eastern District of Virginia is located, makes absolutely clear that a non-cooperation clause in a plea agreement means that a defendant should not be called before a grand jury, either, or be required to cooperate in any way. So the request itself, we believe, was against the law and is against the law, and we’re going to be appealing that to the Fourth Circuit, as well.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about this case in relation to the Chicago case, where both Salah and Ashqar were just acquitted. And the attorney for Ashqar was also the attorney for Al-Arian, William Moffitt, who told The New York Times the government wants to use these cases to turn the fight for Palestinian rights in the Middle East into a battle of criminal law in an American courtroom.
PETER ERLINDER: Well, Bill Moffitt, of course, is a well-known criminal defense lawyer for whom I have great respect, and he is correct about that observation. But what happened, both in Sami Al-Arian’s case and the case in Chicago, is that lawyers for the defendants told the jury the truth about the political motivations for these prosecutions. And when people in the United States, fair-minded folks who understand what the First Amendment means and what freedom of speech mean and what freedom of association mean, hear the details of the government manipulation of these cases, they respond in extraordinary ways, as the jury did in Tampa, as did the jury in Chicago. And this is not a new phenomenon. Several of the other lawyers in the Chicago case are National Lawyers Guild members, as am I, as are a number of the other lawyers, including Lynne Stewart, who you know, who have been fighting this. And the successes have come when the lawyers have made clear to the juries the political underpinnings of these prosecutions, which of course is what’s motivating them.
AMY GOODMAN: Peter Erlinder, I want to go back to the end of the interview with Sami Al-Arian from this Virginia jail, speaking to us from Virginia. At the time of his arrest, Al-Arian was a leading member of the Muslim community in South Florida, one of the most prominent Palestinian academics and activists in the United States. In September 2001, invited to be a guest on the O’Reilly Factor, under the impression he was going to be discussing Arab-American reactions to 9/11. Instead, the host, Bill O’Reilly, spent the interview accusing him of supporting terrorism. O’Reilly concluded by saying, “If I was the CIA, I’d follow you wherever you went.”
Beginning the next day, the University of South Florida, where Al-Arian worked, was barraged with hundreds of threatening letters and emails. Thirty-six hours after the interview, the university put him on paid leave. He was arrested a year and a half later and has been in prison ever since. In my conversation with Dr. Al-Arian from prison yesterday, I asked him about the media’s role in his ordeal and whether it all began with Bill O’Reilly.
SAMI AL-ARIAN: No. It actually started long before Bill O’Reilly, and if you know John Sugg has been — who is a journalist, used to be in Tampa, now in Atlanta, I think, a senior editor of an alternative newsweekly, he has been tracking this. And I think there’s another journalist, Eric Boehlert, who wrote about this. This media campaign has been going on now since 1994. And the same media people who have been after me since 1994 were the instigators to Bill O’Reilly. And I didn’t know that, of course, at the time, but I know it now. There is a group of people who present themselves as terrorism experts, who have been after me. And, I mean, their names are very well known. I don’t need to recite them here for you, but they are very well known. Anybody can look them up.
AMY GOODMAN: You’re referring to, for example, Steven Emerson?
SAMI AL-ARIAN: That’s one of them.
AMY GOODMAN: And he represents what group?
SAMI AL-ARIAN: Well, a lot of them are referred to as basically Likudniks in this country. I mean, I am sure now, you know, with the neocons, a lot of people know now more about them than they used to as of 10 years ago. I mean, you got the guy from Philadelphia, Pipes, and others. And so, I don’t need to go through all these names, but they have been part of that group who are trying to basically say that the interest of Israel, this country, is the same as the interest of America, which we totally reject that.
AMY GOODMAN: We only have a few more minutes. What about your family? You plea bargained, you say, to spare your family another trial?
SAMI AL-ARIAN: Not only that. You know, I’ve been away from my family for four years, and my two youngest children are in need of me. This is the most critical time of their life, and I need to be a part of their lives before they grow up. And that was the major consideration for me, to end this, is to be with them. And now the government wants even to delay it further. That’s why, you know, I’m not going to [inaudible] — that happened. And, as I said earlier, to me, freedom is more precious than life itself, and if I have to sacrifice, I will sacrifice. But I will not give in.
AMY GOODMAN: And so, your children now are what age?
SAMI AL-ARIAN: Well, the three older ones are in college or graduated and working. And I got the two younger ones, one in middle school and one in high school, 12 and 16.
AMY GOODMAN: When you are deported, will they go to where you are?
SAMI AL-ARIAN: The two youngest ones will go with me, yes. The other ones, obviously, are going to stay here, because they have established lives here.
AMY GOODMAN: And your wife?
SAMI AL-ARIAN: My wife will be with me. And she has been with me throughout this. And I couldn’t ask for a better partner in my life.
AMY GOODMAN: Could they convene one grand jury after another and keep you in jail forever?
SAMI AL-ARIAN: No. They can’t do that. I’m told that they can do it up to two times. But, obviously, they always have a gun at your head, because they can go also, after they’ve done with the civil contempt, they go for criminal contempt. And the problem with the criminal contempt is that the proof is not very difficult, because all what they have to do is that you refuse to obey the court’s order, and then there is no limit on how much you can be sentenced in a criminal contempt. So this could be an open-ended struggle.
AMY GOODMAN: Your final thoughts, as you speak to us from jail in Virginia, to share with this audience here in the United States, but also all over the world.
SAMI AL-ARIAN: Yes. I just want to say how grateful I am for really thousands of people who have looked at this case and have concluded that this was unjust and this is politically motivated. And I want to thank them from the bottom of my heart, because I receive letters almost on a daily basis, and notes and pictures and books and letters of support and prayers.
OPERATOR: You have one minute left to talk.
SAMI AL-ARIAN: I would like to thank them and take this opportunity basically to thank them. And I would like them to continue the struggle, because the struggle in America has not ended. It’s been a continuous line for civil rights in this country from early on until now, and I think we are going to win. They just have to hold on, be patient and steadfast and, as the president says, stay the course.
AMY GOODMAN: Sami Al-Arian, speaking in his first broadcast interview since his arrest and imprisonment four years ago.
Laila Al-Arian is Sami Al-Arian’s eldest daughter. She’s a graduate of Columbia University Journalism School here in New York. She joins us in the firehouse studio. And we’re still joined by Peter Erlinder, Dr. Al-Arian’s attorney, speaking with us from Minneapolis. Laila, your father is now entering his third week of a hunger strike, has lost more than 15 pounds now. How is that affecting your family?
LAILA AL-ARIAN: We’re very worried about his health. He’s a diabetic, as was stated before. And, you know, we’re just worried about how this is going to affect him, and at the same time we’re trying to support him and we’re fasting ourselves as much as we can. And there’s now 75 people around the country that are also fasting in solidarity. So, it’s definitely a tough time for us.
AMY GOODMAN: He has been in something like nine jails? How does that affect you? And are you able to see him, are you able to visit him?
LAILA AL-ARIAN: Where he is now in Warsaw, Virginia, we have visited him. We have a one-hour visit once a week, so we usually drive from D.C. about two hours.
AMY GOODMAN: But do you touch?
LAILA AL-ARIAN: No. We can’t. It’s behind glass and through the telephone. But every time he’s moved to a different prison, we’re extremely worried about him. Usually he’s moved under horrible circumstances. He’s shackled. He’s deprived of food and water sometimes. He’s treated horribly by, you know, some of — and told racist statements by some racist court marshals, who — I’m sorry — people who are in charge of transporting him. So it’s usually just a horrible nightmare for all of us, and just trying to get a hold of him and to find out where he is is also a big ordeal.
AMY GOODMAN: How old were you when he was first arrested? And what is your understanding of his case?
LAILA AL-ARIAN: I was 21 when he was first arrested. I was a senior in college, about to graduate. And he ended up missing my graduation. Me and my older brother and younger sister, who’s 21, are very much aware of what’s going on. And we’ve been, you know, his advocates for the past four years as much as we can. And we just see this as the government criminalizing political speech and association. It’s un-American. And that’s sort of my core understanding of my father’s case.
AMY GOODMAN: You went on to journalism school, to Columbia Journalism School. How has this affected your view of what is now your profession as a freelance journalist?
LAILA AL-ARIAN: Well, as my father mentioned in his interview, the media has definitely played a big role in our case. There’s a 10-year smear campaign by The Tampa Tribune locally that ended up affecting some couple of jurors that held out at the end and also the judge, clearly, through his comments. So it’s definitely made me more skeptical as a journalist, which I think is what journalists should be: skeptical and cynical of the official government line. And I see my father’s case as no different. The reporting in it is no different than the reporting of weapons of mass destruction in the lead-up to the Iraq War. It’s just a failure by, unfortunately, many journalists to question the official government line and to move beyond accusations to look for evidence.
AMY GOODMAN: Judge Moody said to your father, “Your children have attended the finest universities of this country, and you advocate blowing up other people’s children.” Your response?
LAILA AL-ARIAN: What’s interesting is that the judge actually took that line from a government witness, who was discredited on the stand for lying and for embellishing on his resume. So that goes to show you where he’s getting his cues from: from a discredited government witness who was a spy in the Muslim community. So, obviously, I think the government used those words — I mean, excuse me, the judge used those words to really try to hurt my father, and it didn’t work. I mean, he just ended up looking undignified in the end.
AMY GOODMAN: Peter Erlinder, as we speak to you in Minneapolis, you’re the attorney for Dr. Al-Arian now. Can Dr. Al-Arian just be held indefinitely? Could they convene one grand jury after another — he’ll refuse to cooperate — and he just gets extended prison terms?
PETER ERLINDER: Well, the grand jury civil contempt process can’t go on forever. His civil contempt is reviewed as a matter of course every six months. And then, I believe it’s two terms of the grand jury, which would be 36 months that it would be possible to continue this. But as Dr. Al-Arian mentioned, then after that, criminal contempt charges could be brought.
And I want to make it absolutely clear that tomorrow, Attorney General Gonzales could release him. There are no pending charges against him. The Justice Department already agreed that he should have been released last May, and with a single stroke of a pen, a single phone call, Attorney General Gonzales could live up to the bargain that the Justice Department made last spring and allow Sami to get on with his life. This is purely an act of executive branch hubris. This is not the law; this is politics.
AMY GOODMAN: Laila, your uncle was deported, Mazen Al-Najjar. Your father, at the end of this, is going to be deported. What does this mean to you?
LAILA AL-ARIAN: Unfortunately, it’s just the story of Palestinians now. I mean, no other people are stateless the way Palestinians are. And, you know, my father came to this country at the age of 17, an idealist. He really believed, and still does to a certain extent, in American democracy and the ideals of this country, and his children do, too. And this is the only country all five of his children have ever known. So it really is heartbreaking to see that the cycle of stateless Palestinian refugees keeps continuing, and it really needs to stop.
AMY GOODMAN: What kind of support have you gotten?
LAILA AL-ARIAN: We’ve gotten tremendous support, especially locally in Tampa from the progressive Christian community there, and we’re really grateful for their efforts. They’ve spearheaded the rolling hunger strike in support of my father. And they’ve really been for us the past four years, writing letters, trying to meet with members of Congress and the Justice Department. So, as my father said, we’re very grateful for their help. And, you know, we’ve also received national support from different organizations and from some members of the Muslim community. So it’s been really tremendous. And internationally even, we receive a lot of emails and letters from people all over the world who are closely watching this case.
AMY GOODMAN: Peter Erlinder, in terms of the legal community and how these cases fit into the climate in this country, and the whole issue that Dr. Al-Arian brought up, a campaign that he was involved in when he was free, the issue of secret evidence.
PETER ERLINDER: Well, actually Dr. Al-Arian and I were two of the founding members of the National Coalition to Protect Political Freedom that the Lawyers Guild initiated with the purpose of stopping the use of this secret evidence. And in litigation over a period of years, David Cole, who is a professor at Georgetown, and others were successful in having the secret evidence thrown out of 22 cases in a row, I believe, and we were just on the verge of having Congress repeal the secret evidence law when 9/11 happened, as Dr. Al-Arian mentioned .
AMY GOODMAN: How has this affected your decisions in your life, Laila Al-Arian?
LAILA AL-ARIAN: I think it’s just been a very, very difficult time for us. But I think at the same time it’s made us better people. It’s made us more empathetic. You know, we’re constantly watching what’s going on to victims all over the world, victims of oppression. And it’s made us strong advocates for justice.
AMY GOODMAN: When your father is deported, your mother and younger siblings will go?
LAILA AL-ARIAN: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Will you stay here?
LAILA AL-ARIAN: I think so. I think me and the older siblings, we have a life here. We have careers. My two siblings are in academia, I’m a journalist. So, we’re pretty firmly rooted here. We’ll definitely be traveling back and forth.
AMY GOODMAN: And the website to get more information about your father?
LAILA AL-ARIAN: To get more information about my father’s case, it’s www.freesamialarian.com.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you for being with us, Laila Al-Arian and Peter Erlinder, attorney for Dr. Al-Arian, speaking to us from Minneapolis.