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The Family Toll: Sami Al-Arian’s Daughter on Her Father’s Imprisonment

StoryFebruary 07, 2007
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Laila Al-Arian is Sami Al-Arian’s eldest daughter. She joins us to talk about her father’s imprisonment and its effect on the Al-Arian family. We’re also joined by Sami Al-Arian’s attorney, Peter Erlinder. [includes rush transcript]

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StoryFeb 07, 2007EXCLUSIVE: Hunger-Striking Palestinian Professor Sami Al-Arian Speaks Out in First Broadcast Interview of His Four-Year Imprisonment
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

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?


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.


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?


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

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.

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EXCLUSIVE: Hunger-Striking Palestinian Professor Sami Al-Arian Speaks Out in First Broadcast Interview of His Four-Year Imprisonment

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