Civics 101: USA v. Al Arian
If it's Sunday night, it's Civics 101 at the Mokhiber household.
Last night, the home schooling Civics topic:
Congress shall pass no law abridging freedom of speech.
Let's go to the DVD.
Let's see if a documentary about the U.S. Constitution can hold the attention of a 13 year-old and a 10 year-old - for 90 minutes.
Sami Al-Arian is the University of South Florida Professor and Palestinian activist.
Al-Arian advocates for the overthrow of the Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza.
As Nelson Mandela advocated for the overthrow of the apartheid regime in South Africa.
As any of us would fight against occupation - if we were occupied.
Al-Arian was engaging in free speech.
But, lo and behold, Al-Arian became a target of the U.S. Department of Justice.
They said he supported Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
They accused him of being a terrorist.
They indicted him and others in Florida and put him on trial.
They tapped thousands of his family's phone conversations.
Including those of his wife ordering pizza.
They used 400 of those phone conversations at trial.
Picking and choosing.
Slicing and dicing.
They flew Israeli victims of bus bombings from Tel Aviv to St. Petersburg, Florida to testify against him.
They spent $50 million to prosecute Sami Al-Arian.
One problem - the government couldn't establish a link between Al-Arian's advocacy and these violent acts.
Two years ago this week, on December 6, 2005, Sami Al-Arian was found not guilty on eight counts.
The jury hung on the remaining nine counts.
The reporters wanted to know from the jurors - why didn't you convict Sami Al-Arian of being a terrorist?
What was missing from the government's case?
"Evidence," one juror responded wryly while leaving the courthouse.
"Guilty of what?" asked St. Petersburg Times reporter Meg Laughlin.
"Why is he still in jail?" asks my ten-year-old, Nicholas.
Pause the DVD.
The jury acquitted Al-Arian of eight counts.
They were unanimous. 12 to 0.
But they deadlock in the remaining nine counts - 10 to 2.
That's called a hung jury.
And when the jury hangs, the prosecutor can come back and try Al-Arian again on those counts.
Which they threatened to do.
But they also held out the carrot.
Plead guilty to one count to non-violent support of Palestine Islamic Jihad.
And we'll recommend time served.
And you'll be deported.
One thing Al-Arian has to be proud of is - his family.
They are the stars of this movie.
His wife Nahla, and children Leila, Leena, Abdullah, Lama, and Ali - are strong, sane, composed, articulate.
Not that they don't have their moments of frustration. They do. Nahla blows a gasket while cutting her son Ali's hair. (Ali doesn't help matters by resisting the hair cut.) Nahla blows again while speaking to Sami - he's on the speaker phone from prison asking her to check some web site. She's busy doing something else. He hangs up on her. She reaches for a couple of unidentified pills.
But never do the Al-Arians blow up at the Norwegian film crew - which is camped out at their home throughout the trial. If they did, the blow up didn't make the final cut.
When federal prosecutors offered Al-Arian the plea deal, he questioned whether to take it.
He would have preferred to fight it.
He figured - hey, I beat the government once, I can beat them again.
But the family wanted none of it.
The family was fed up with our government's harassment, trials, phone-tapping, and right wing attacks.
They wanted out.
Give us our father back and let's move to Egypt.
As Georgetown University Law Professor David Cole puts it - Al-Arian could have fought through another six month trial, and even if he were found not guilty, he would still be facing deportation.
So, Al-Arian pleads guilty to one count.
And the family all drives down to the courthouse for what they thought was one last time to get their father.
But the Judge decides to reject the government's proposed sentence - time served - and hits Al-Arian with the maximum sentence.
Al-Arian stays in jail.
He was due out earlier this year, but then came Gordon Kromberg.
Kromberg is an assistant U.S. Attorney in Virginia.
Kromberg wants to put Al-Arian through a perjury trap.
He wants him to testify before a federal grand jury in Virginia investigating Islamic charities.
This was in direct violation of the plea deal Al-Arian cut with the government.
So, Al-Arian refuses to testify.
Kromberg charges him with contempt and throws him in jail in Virginia.
When Al-Arian's attorneys request a delay of the prison transfer during the holy month, Kromberg shows his stripes when he responds:
"If they can kill each other during Ramadan, they can appear before the grand jury. I am not going to put off Dr. Al- Arian's grand jury appearance just to assist in what is becoming the Islamization of America."
The movie ends before Kromberg enters the picture.
He would have fit well into this little morality play.
Good v. Evil.
Al-Arian remains in prison in Virginia on civil contempt charges.
As he appeals his case, the government is considering charging him again with criminal contempt.
Earlier this year, Nahla and her two youngest children - Ali and Lama - left the country for Egypt.
The movie - USA v. Al-Arian - will open in Washington, D.C. this Wednesday, December 5, 2007 at the Uptown Theater in Washington, D.C.
After the movie, Democracy Now's Amy Goodman will moderate a roundtable discussion with Georgetown Law Professor David Cole, GWU Law Professor Jonathan Turley, one of Al-Arian's trial attorneys - Linda Moreno - along with the Norwegian director of the movie Line Halvorsen, and Sami's son Abdullah.
If you live in the Washington, D.C. area and you have young children - take them to see this movie.
If not, get a copy of the DVD and show it far and wide.
It's a great crash course in Civics 101.
Russell Mokhiber is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Corporate Crime Reporter.