Free Dr. Sami al-Arian

Note: Jury deliberations for this case began on November 15. His family and friends are praying for a just outcome. Please continue to support Dr. Sami Al-Arian.

Dr. Sami Al-Arian, a son of Palestinian refugees who came to the U.S. in 1975 and has been a Professor teaching computer science since 1986 at the University of South Florida, has found himself defending against "secret evidence" on charges of racketeering and fund-raising. The difficulty of refuting charges based on "secret evidence" provided by "unindicted co-conspirators" is generally deemed an insurmountable obstacle to a defense.

For many years, political and human rights activists have been intimidated by such accusations. These tactics are often used by governments to stifle legitimate criticism of policies which those governments wish to carry out. The McCarthy era, currently being re-visited by the movie "Good Night, and Good Luck" which exposes the tactics used by the House Un-American Activities Commission (HUAC), was a prime example of this type of intimidation. Some of our WILPF sisters were caught up in HUAC's wide net during that frightening era. The case of Sami Al-Arian resembles the cases of that era. It stems from the draconian measures instituted under the U.S.A. Patriot Act.

The case is an attack on academic freedom and free speech, and is an assault on First Amendment rights. If another nation were engaged in this type of intimidation and was holding a U.S. citizen on "secret evidence," the U.S. government would protest loudly.

It is telling that Professor Al-Arian's brother-in-law, Dr. Mazen Al-Najjar, was locked up in 1997 and charged under similar laws, but was released in 2000 when a court ruled the procedure unconstitutional. Dr. Al-Najjar taught at the same University. Sami Al-Arian worked hard to get his brother-in-law released, and he himself was arrested a day after the university filed suit in a Florida court against him, seeking "declaratory relief," a judicial determination that the university has the right to fire Dr. Al-Arian and that the firing does not violate the victim's constitutional rights.

The filing took place one day after Dr. Al-Najjar (married to Sami Al-Arian's sister) was expelled from the U.S. (August 22, 2002), having been re-arrested again in November of 2001, still under the onus of proving his innocence against "secretevidence" and unknown accusers. Dr. Al-Najjar is currently staying with relatives in Lebanon, separated from his family, who remain in the U.S.

It is somewhat ironic that Dr. Al-Arian is a co-founder of the Tampa Bay Coalition for Justice and Peace, a local coalition opposed to the unconstitutional use of secret evidence and other civil rights violations, as well as ongoing media attacks against Arabs and Muslims. He is the recipient of three Civil Rights Awards from the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), the American Muslim Council (AMC), and the American Muslim Alliance (AMA). In 1990, he co-founded the World and Islam Studies Enterprise (WISE), a research and academic institution dedicated to promoting dialogue between the Muslim and Western worlds.

Dr. Al-Arian has been married for 25 years and has five American-born children. It can only be surmised that his arrest is an effort to stifle his work to raise awareness about human rights violations against Palestinians. His trial is currently underway at the federal courthouse in Tampa, Florida. His original arrest took place on February 20, 2003, after nearly eight years of government harassment. Bail was not allowed in his case, despite the testimony of more than 35 witnesses in defense of his character and the fact that the prosecution had no witnesses and no evidence to present at the bail hearing.

Many people in the peace and justice community are following this case closely, as Dr. Al-Arian had become well-known as a frequent speaker and lecturer on college campuses, at churches and conferences, where he has spoken on interfaith dialogue, community development, and civil rights. He is one of the founders of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), the largest Muslim grassroots organization in this country. He has served as the imam of the Islamic Community of Tampa. It appears to be his association with the Islamic Committee for Palestine (ICP), a group that raised awareness about the plight of Palestinians, that is the focus of the case against him, although the exact nature of the charges, as well as the identity of his accusers, is not available to him or to his attorneys.

Dr. Al-Arian was arrested along with three other co-defendants. Two of these co-defendants have been released on bail, while Dr. Al-Arian is currently being detained in a facility with hardcore criminals. The charges against him also include terrorism, which stems from the contention that the money raised for ICP was somehow channeled to terrorists. How this connection is being made, or who has leveled these charges, remains a mystery. Part of the confusion is related to a telephone conversation he had with someone identified as "Abu Ahmad," a common name which simply means "father of Ahmad," but which is also the alias of a Gazan named Abd Al-Aziz Awda, assumed to be someone identified by the U.S. as a terrorist. Dr. Al-Arian says that the man with whom he spoke was a Gaza school principal and the men were discussing contributions to his school. Additionally, although Al-Arian spoke frequently, he was not known as an active fund-raiser for any cause, but mainly a spokesperson.

Another charge leveled against him is that his name appeared on the bank account of an organization with which he was associated many years before, The World and Islam Studies Enterprise (WISE). The government has concluded that WISE was a "racketeering enterprise" and has based part of its case around the fact that another name on the bank account was that of Abdullah Shallah, who several years later became the leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ). Guilt by association and the fact that many people have known someone who later went on to do something with which they do not agree are both reasons for concern that any of us might find ourselves in a similar situation to Sami Al-Arian. There were no laws specifying that WISE was an illegal organization at the time that Dr. Al-Arian worked with the group.

All of us should be concerned about this case, as it brings up the possibility of arrest under secret evidence, inability to face one's accuser (or even know who that person is), guilt by association, an assault on freedom of speech, and on academic freedom. The chilling effects of this case (and of the previous case again Dr. Al-Arian's brother-in-law) could be felt by everyone in the peace and justice community. Although Dr. Al-Arian is a stateless Palestinian, having been born outside Palestine and therefore not able to carry the passport of his homeland, once this type of case becomes rampant, the pursuit of U.S. citizens for similar offenses of being critical of the U.S. government, or calling for peace and justice overseas, can affect everyone involved in this type of work.

To learn more about the case, go to freesamialarian.com.

To hear about it in his own words, read his book, Shackled Dreams: A Palestinian's Struggle for Truth, Justice, and the American Way, or his poetry book, Conspiring Against Joseph - Reflections of a Prisoner of Conscience in a Federal Penitentiary.

ACTIONS YOU CAN TAKE

To help Dr. Al-Arian, donate to: National Liberty Fund, P.O. Box 3568, Washington, D.C. 20007; attend the trial if you are nearby (seating will be limited); inform others about the case (To put on an event, email tampabayjustice@yahoo.com); send letters of encouragement to Dr. Sami Al-Arian and co-defendant Sameeh Hammoudeh

Write to your congressperson and request that he/she repeal the portions of the U.S.A. Patriot Act which allow for secret evidence. In appeals to Congress, stress that secret evidence is counter to democratic government and that its result is that no one held under secret evidence is capable of mounting a defense, resulting in greater possibility that innocent persons will be convicted. Also remind your Congressperson that this government would be highly critical (and has been highly critical) of any other nation using secret evidence or the testimony of unknown witnesses as a part of their case. Say that you value freedom of speech and that this nation is greater when there is an open debate on crucial issues. Remind him/her that pushing ideas underground is a greater risk than keeping them out in the open.

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