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The Perpetual Trial of Sami Al-Arian

By       Message WILLIAM FISHER     Permalink
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Fox News Channel, NBC, Media General (specifically its Tampa newspaper) and the giant radio conglomerate, Clear Channel Communications (home of Rush Limbaugh's broadcasts) shoulder an especially heavy burden for fanning the flames of post-9/11 hysteria.

As Eric Boehlert wrote in Salon, "In the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, all four media giants, eagerly tapping into the country's mood of vengeance and fear, latched onto the Al-Arian story, fudging the facts and ignoring the most rudimentary tenets of journalism in their haste to better tell a sinister story about lurking Middle Eastern dangers here at home."

He continued: "The story went national when Al-Arian was invited on the Fox News Channel's "The O'Reilly Factor" show. Host Bill O'Reilly revived inflammatory charges against Al-Arian dating back, in some cases, 15 years.

Those charges were that a now-defunct Islamic think tank Al-Arian founded and ran in conjunction with USF operated as a sort of home away from home for radical Palestinians and terrorists. The charges had been thoroughly investigated and rejected by USF, and an immigration judge; the FBI has been looking for years and has never filed any charges."

The impact of its battles with the US justice system on Al-Arian's family was profound. Leila Al-Arian, one of three Al-Arian daughters, told this reporter that "the adversity our family experienced brought us all much closer together. We had to depend on one another for emotional support."

Leila, a journalist who lives in Washington, DC, said raising money for her father's legal defense fund was probably the most stressful activity the family had to take on. "We knew just about nothing about raising money. Asking for financial help is a humbling experience."

"What made it bearable -- and successful -- was the spirit and goodwill of so many people who offered to help.   A woman in Tampa organized demonstrations in support of my father. A man in California, who was a friend of my father, became one of the national voices in his support. There were so many and many of them didn't know us at all. They were just appalled by what was happening to my Dad," she said.

Once Al-Arian's trial actually began, the prosecution called 80 witnesses, including more than 20 from Israel. Much of the government's evidence presented to the jury during the six-month trial consisted of Dr. Al-Arian's speeches, lectures, articles, magazines, books he owned, and accounts of conferences he convened, rallies he attended, interviews he gave, and parts of hundreds of wiretapped phone calls from over a half million recorded.

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When the defense's turn came to present its case, it rested. It called not a single witness in its behalf. Its sole defense was that all of Al-Arian's written and spoken words were protected speech under the First Amendment.

After 13 days of deliberation, the jury found him innocent on eight of the charges, including the most serious, and hung on the rest, voting 10 to 2 to acquit. Two of Al Arian's three co-defendants were acquitted completely.

Three co-defendants stood trial with al-Arian; two, Sameeh Hammoudeh and Ghassan Zayed Ballut, were acquitted of all charges. A third, Hatem Naji Fariz, was acquitted of most charges, with the jury deadlocking on the remainder. As with al-Arian, the government said it was considering re-filing "unresolved charges" against Fariz.

The total collapse of the government's case could only be seen as a devastating embarrassment for the Justice Department, which had spent an estimated $50-$80 million. Observers of the trial believe the DOJ won an expensive humiliation.

But the DOJ's intent to re-try Al-Arian led him to strike a secret plea bargain.   He was desperate to avoid both the emotional and financial cost of a new trial to himself and his family. The essence of the plea deal was that Al-Arian neither engaged in or had any knowledge of violent acts; that he would not be required to cooperate further with prosecutors; and that he would be released on time served and deported voluntarily to his country of choice.

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In the meantime, Al-Arian remained in custody pending sentencing and deportation. He expected to be freed on May 1, 2006. But the presiding judge changed the deal. He sentenced Al-Arian to the maximum 57 months, gave him credit for time served, and ordered him held for the remaining 11 months, after which an April 2007 deportation would follow.

In October 2006, assistant prosecutor Gordon Kromberg violated the plea bargain terms by subpoenaing Al-Arian before a grand jury. His defense attorneys tried to block it by citing his "no-grand jury cooperation" promise. But prosecutors gutted the cooperation clause from the agreement, which was made during plea negotiations (when to prevent the DOJ from springing a perjury-obstruction trap). The defense's motion was denied, and on November 16 Al-Arian again refused to testify and again was held in civil contempt.

A month later, the grand jury expired, a new one was convened, and Al-Arian was again subpoenaed to testify. He continued to refuse, was held in contempt, and had his sentence increased by an additional year to April 7, 2008.

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William Fisher has managed economic development programs in the Middle East and elsewhere for the US State Department and the US Agency for International Development. He served in the international affairs area in the Kennedy Administration and now (more...)

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