The True Story of Free Speech in America

Published on
by
the lndependent/UK

The True Story of Free Speech in America

by
Robert Fisk

Laila al-Arian was wearing her headscarf at her desk at Nation Books, one of my New York publishers. No, she told me, it would be difficult to telephone her father. At the medical facility of his North Carolina prison, he can only make a few calls - monitored, of course - and he was growing steadily weaker.

Sami al-Arian is 49 but he stayed on hunger strike for 60 days to protest the government outrage committed against him, a burlesque of justice which has, of course, largely failed to rouse the sleeping dogs of American journalism in New York, Washington and Los Angeles.

All praise, then, to the journalist John Sugg from Tampa, Florida, who has been cataloging al-Arian's little Golgotha for months, along with Alexander Cockburn of Counter Punch.

The story so far: Sami al-Arian, a Kuwaiti-born Palestinian, was a respected computer professor at the University of South Florida who tried, however vainly, to communicate the real tragedy of Palestinian Arabs to the US government. But according to Sugg, Israel's lobbyists were enraged by his lessons - al-Arian's family was driven from Palestine in 1948 - and in 2003, at the instigation of Attorney General Ashcroft, he was arrested and charged with conspiring "to murder and maim" outside the United States and with raising money for Islamic Jihad in "Palestine". He was held for two and a half years in solitary confinement, hobbling half a mile, his hands and feet shackled, merely to talk to his lawyers.

Al-Arian's $50m (£25m) Tampa trial lasted six months; the government called 80 witnesses (21 from Israel) and used 400 intercepted phone calls along with evidence of a conversation that a co-defendant had with al-Arian in - wait for it - a dream. The local judge, a certain James Moody, vetoed any remarks about Israeli military occupation or about UN Security Council Resolution 242, on the grounds that they would endanger the impartiality of the jurors.

In December, 2005, al-Arian was acquitted on the most serious charges and on those remaining; the jurors voted 10 to two for acquittal. Because the FBI wanted to make further charges, al-Arian's lawyers told him to make a plea that would end any further prosecution. Arriving for his sentence, however, al-Arian - who assumed time served would be his punishment, followed by deportation - found Moody talking about "blood" on the defendant's hands and ensured he would have to spend another 11 months in jail. Then prosecutor Gordon Kromberg insisted that the Palestinian prisoner should testify against an Islamic think tank. Al-Arian believed his plea bargain had been dishonored and refused to testify. He was held in contempt. And continues to languish in prison.

Not so, of course, most of America's torturers in Iraq. One of them turns out to rejoice in the name of Ric Fair, a "contract interrogator", who has bared his soul in the Washington Post - all praise, here, by the way to the Post - about his escapades in the Fallujah interrogation "facility" of the 82nd Airborne Division. Fair has been having nightmares about an Iraqi whom he deprived of sleep during questioning "by forcing him to stand in a corner and stripping him of his clothes". Now it is Fair who is deprived of sleep. "A man with no face stares at me ... pleads for help, but I'm afraid to move. He begins to cry. It s a pitiful sound, and it sickens me. He screams, but as I awaken, I realize the screams are mine."

Thank God, Fair didn't write a play about his experiences and offer it to Channel 4 whose executives got cold feet about The Mark of Cain, the drama about British army abuse in Basra. They quickly bought into the line that transmission of Tony Marchant's play might affect the now happy outcome of the far less riveting Iranian prison production of the Famous 15 "Servicepersons" - by angering the Muslim world with tales of how our boys in Basra beat up on the local Iraqis. As the reporter who first revealed the death of hotel worker Baha Mousa in British custody in Basra - I suppose we must always refer to his demise as "death" now that the soldiers present at his savage beating have been acquitted of murder - I can attest that Arab Muslims know all too well how gentle and refined our boys are during interrogation. It is we, the British at home, who are not supposed to believe in torture. The Iraqis know all about it - and who knew all about Mousa's fate long before I reported it for The Independent on Sunday.

Because it's really all about shutting the reality of the Middle East off from us. It's to prevent the British and American people from questioning the immoral and cruel and internationally illegal occupation of Muslim lands. And in the Land of the Free, this systematic censorship of Middle East reality continues even in the country's schools. Now the principal of a Connecticut high school has banned a play by pupils, based on the letters and words of US soldiers serving in Iraq. Entitled Voices in Conflict, Natalie Kropf, Seth Koproski, James Presson and their fellow pupils at Wilton High School compiled the reflections of soldiers and others - including a 19-year-old Wilton High graduate killed in Iraq - to create their own play. To no avail. The drama might hurt those "who had lost loved ones or who had individuals serving as we speak", proclaimed Timothy Canty, Wilton High's principal. And - my favorite line - Canty believed there was not enough rehearsal time to ensure the play would provide "a legitimate instructional experience for our students".

And of course, I can quite see Mr Canty's point. Students who have produced Arthur Miller's The Crucible were told by Mr Canty - whose own war experiences, if any, have gone unrecorded - that it wasn't their place to tell audiences what soldiers were thinking. The pupils of Wilton High are now being inundated with offers to perform at other venues. Personally, I think Mr Canty may have a point. He would do much better to encourage his students to perform Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus, a drama of massive violence, torture, rape, mutilation and honor killing. It would make Iraq perfectly explicable to the good people of Connecticut. A "legitimate instructional experience" if ever there was one.

© 2007 Independent News and Media Limited

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