Three decades ago Palestinian Islamic Jihad was one of the most well known militant groups in the world. It wreaked havoc on Israel, carrying out numerous suicide bombings that took the lives of more than 100 during the intifada years. One of its leaders had taught at the University of South Florida and in the wake of his relocation to Syria his colleague who taught at the same university, Dr. Sami al-Arian, became the center of a terrorism investigation. Al-Arian was an unexpected presumed jihadist. He was a known civil rights activist who was invited to the White House, and had ties to congress and top GOP operatives. In 2000 he campaigned for Muslims to vote for George W. Bush.
Eventually charges were brought against al-Arian in 2003 on suspicion of supporting Islamic Jihad through U.S. Muslim advocacy groups he co-founded. It was the first major post 9/11 terror trial. Still the case was flimsy. In 2005 al-Arian was acquitted of all charges. But his difficulties did not stop. Al-Arian remained in federal custody while the justice department prepared to mount another terror investigation against him.
In 2006 al-Arian signed a plea agreement, admitting to no material support to terrorism, but conceding to knowing three individuals in alleged association with Islamic Jihad. As part of the agreement, al-Arian said the terms stipulated he would not have to testify in any further cases and at the end of his imprisoned he would be deported. Al-Arian had presumed the Justice Department would seek his testimony regarding one of the men he conceded to knowing in the plea deal.
Then in 2007 the Justice Department did ask al-Arian to testify in a terror case. When al-Arian refused citing his plea agreement, he was held in contempt for 18 months. After completing that term, he was sentenced to again on another contempt charge from the same case. Claiming the Justice Department was violating the arrangement made with him, Al-Arian underwent a hunger strike while in prison. In 2008 al-Arian was transferred to home arrest in his northern Virginia house where he remained until five days ago when he was deported to Turkey.
In total al-Arian was imprisoned in detention facilities and at his house for 12 years. Yet he was never convicted of any crime. And in 2014 the justice department announced without much fanfare that they had dropped all investigation into al-Arian. – Allison Deger
On February 2, 2015 the day of his deportation, Dr. Sami al-Arian published the following letter on his blog:
After 40 years, my time in the U.S. has come to an end. Like many immigrants of my generation, I came to the U.S. in 1975 to seek a higher education and greater opportunities. I also wanted to live in a free society where freedom of speech, association and religion are not only tolerated but guaranteed and protected under the law. That’s why I decided to stay and raise my family here, after earning my doctorate in 1986. Simply put, to me, freedom of speech and thought represented the cornerstone of a dignified life.
Today, freedom of expression has become a defining feature in the struggle to realize our humanity and liberty. The forces of intolerance, hegemony, and exclusionary politics tend to favor the stifling of free speech and the suppression of dissent. But nothing is more dangerous than when such suppression is perpetrated and sanctioned by government. As one early American once observed, “When the people fear their government, there is tyranny; when the government fears the people, there is liberty.” Because government has enormous power and authority over its people, such control must be checked, and people, especially those advocating unpopular opinions, must have absolute protections from governmental overreach and abuse of power.
A case in point of course is the issue of Palestinian self-determination. In the United States, as well as in many other western countries, those who support the Palestinian struggle for justice, and criticize Israel’s occupation and brutal policies, have often experienced an assault on their freedom of speech in academia, media, politics and society at large.
After the tragic events of September 11th, such actions by the government intensified, in the name of security. Far too many people have been targeted and punished because of their unpopular opinions or beliefs.
During their opening statement in my trial in June 2005, my lawyers showed the jury two poster-sized photographs of items that government agents took during searches of my home many years earlier. In one photo, there were several stacks of books taken from my home library. The other photo showed a small gun I owned at the time. The attorney looked the jury in the eyes and said: “This is what this case is about. When the government raided my client’s house, this is what they seized,” he said, pointing to the books, “and this is what they left,” he added, pointing to the gun in the other picture. “This case is not about terrorism but about my client’s right to freedom of speech,” he continued.
Indeed, much of the evidence the government presented to the jury during the six-month trial were speeches I delivered, lectures I presented, articles I wrote, magazines I edited, books I owned, conferences I convened, rallies I attended, interviews I gave, news I heard, and websites I never even accessed.
But the most disturbing part of the trial was not that the government offered my speeches, opinions, books, writings, and dreams into evidence, but that an intimidated judicial system allowed them to be admitted into evidence.
That’s why we applauded the jury’s verdict. Our jurors represented the best society had to offer. Despite all of the fear-mongering and scare tactics used by the authorities, the jury acted as free people, people of conscience, able to see through Big Brother’s tactics. One hard lesson that must be learned from the trial is that political cases should have no place in a free and democratic society.
But despite the long and arduous ordeal and hardships suffered by my family, I leave with no bitterness or resentment in my heart whatsoever. In fact, I’m very grateful for the opportunities and experiences afforded to me and my family in this country, and for the friendships we’ve cultivated over the decades. These are lifelong connections that could never be affected by distance.
I would like to thank God for all the blessings in my life. My faith sustained me during my many months in solitary confinement and gave me comfort that justice would ultimately prevail.
Our deep thanks go to the friends and supporters across the U.S., from university professors to grassroots activists, individuals and organizations, who have stood alongside us in the struggle for justice.
My trial attorneys, Linda Moreno and the late Bill Moffitt, were the best advocates anyone could ask for, both inside and outside of the courtroom. Their spirit, intelligence, passion and principle were inspirational to so many.
I am also grateful to Jonathan Turley and his legal team, whose tireless efforts saw the case to its conclusion. Jonathan’s commitment to justice and brilliant legal representation resulted in the government finally dropping the case.
Our gratitude also goes to my immigration lawyers, Ira Kurzban and John Pratt, for the tremendous work they did in smoothing the way for this next phase of our lives.
Thanks also to my children for their patience, perseverance and support during the challenges of the last decade. I am so proud of them.
Finally, my wife Nahla has been a pillar of love, strength and resilience. She kept our family together during the most difficult times. There are no words to convey the extent of my gratitude.
We look forward to the journey ahead and take with us the countless happy memories we formed during our life in the United States.