The Bush administration continues to use a criminal act committed seven years ago to justify sweeping restrictions on our civil liberties and the incarceration of more than 5,000 residents of Arab descent on phony charges or on no charges at all. One of these men is Sami al-Arian.
The February 2003 arrest of Al-Arian, a Palestinian Muslim and former University of South Florida computer science professor who has been a legal resident of the United States for 30 years, was announced by former Attorney General John Ashcroft on the evening news.
Viewers were told that al-Arian, an outspoken critic of Israeli policy against Palestinians, was a leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and that the arrest was a great coup in the "war against terrorism."
After spending more than two years in solitary confinement, al-Arian (joined by 3 co-defendants) had a six-month trial, which began in June 2005. The government called 70 witnesses, including 21 from Israel, and submitted records of 400 intercepted phone calls culled during the 10 years in which al-Arian had been under government surveillance. The jury acquitted al-Arian of most of the serious charges against him, while two of his three co-defendants were completely acquitted. (When asked what the prosecution lacked to build a more convincing case, one juror responded: Evidence.) The trial cost taxpayers $50 million.
Nevertheless, Judge James Moody rejected the government's request for the minimal sentence on the lesser charges and instead ordered the maximum, making inflammatory remarks from the bench in which he painted al-Arian as a villain. In October 2006, al-Arian was subpoenaed by Gordon Kromberg, assistant U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of Virginia, to testify before a grand jury in another case, in violation of the terms of the plea bargain al-Arian's lawyers had made and in a transparent attempt at entrapment. Kromberg has made bigoted remarks about Muslims and railed against what he mysteriously referred to as "the Islamization of America." Al-Arian refused to testify and went on a hunger strike.
Sami al-Arian was finally freed on bond on Sept. 2, confined to his home until he is (presumably) deported, and so his saga is drawing to a close. But the cost has been tremendous. An innocent man was snatched from his home and his family for five years, much of that time spent in solitary confinement. He had to take his chances with a jury trial. He was at the mercy of a biased judge and an activist prosecutor, Gordon Kromberg, who is on record as stating that if he believes that defendants are guilty but cannot prove it, he will "punish them through other means." (Presumably this belief led him to slap al-Arian with a subpoena.)
Al-Arian's rights to live with his family were trampled because the government needed to show some progress in this vague "war on terrorism," and al-Arian had the right profile: Palestinian American, Muslim, and a vocal critic of Israel's treatment of Palestinians. And although he has been cleared of all major charges, he will be denied living in the country in which he has spent his entire adult life, where he had a good life as a respected university professor, and where his children were born and raised. Harsh imprisonment conditions and his periodic hunger strikes have reduced his weight drastically.
For 7 years, the Bush administration has repeated the mantra that the safeguards provided in our legal code are luxuries we can no longer afford and that we must learn to live without. This is nonsense. The laws we had to protect our civil rights did not make us vulnerable to terrorism on September 11; the suspension of these laws does not protect us from foreign terrorists, but it does make us more vulnerable to abuses by our own government.
Sami al-Arian's rights -- to privacy, to free speech and to his political opinions, to a speedy trial, to a presumption of innocence, to due process -- were dismissed; his fate was put in the hands of bureaucrats who needed to show that they were winning a war on a concept and who were comfortable resorting to legally questionable tactics to support that bogus claim. This abuse of power and of the rule of law does much more long-term damage to the fabric of our national life than the attacks perpetrated 7 years ago.