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Laila Al-Arian Headshot

My Father, 9/11 Scapegoat

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"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."
-- federal prosecutor Gordon Kromberg

"The conditions under which Dr. Al-Arian has been detained both during his pre-trial detention, and since his sentencing appear to be unacceptably harsh and punitive."
-- Amnesty International

My father, a Palestinian professor named Sami Al-Arian, was arrested over four years ago on trumped up terrorism charges and submitted to a prosecution over the course of six months that bordered on the farcical. Though he was ultimately acquitted by a jury of the most serious charges against him, the Bush administration has prolonged his imprisonment indefinitely. My father now languishes in a Virginia jail, another victim of the demagogic politics of the so-called war on terror.

Many have wondered why my father would be targeted so vigorously, especially after the government lost a case that cost $50 million. But as with its firing of the eight federal prosecutors who "chafed" against its radical agenda, the administration of President George W. Bush has injected its politics into the system, prolonging my father's imprisonment to punish him for the humiliation his acquittal caused them.

Last month, my father completed a 60-day hunger strike to protest his continued imprisonment that left him in such a weakened state he was confined to a wheelchair. Soon after receiving medical treatment, he was transferred to a Federal Correctional Institute in Petersburg, Virginia. Upon my father's arrival, a prison guard remarked while strip-searching him: "Where are you from? Afghanistan?" Though my father refused to answer the demeaning question, the guard repeated it several times. He went on:

"It doesn't matter where you're from. If I had my way, you wouldn't be in prison. I'd put a bullet in your head and get it done with. You're nothing but a piece of s***."

This is not the first time this guard harassed my father. In January, he told him: "You're a terrorist. I can tell by your name."

This time there was a witness to the abuse, though he wasn't exactly a friendly one. Upon hearing his underling's outburst, the lieutenant in charge took my father aside and shackled his arms and legs. The shackles were so tight my father lost sensation in his extremities for the duration of the four-hour trip to his final destination, a detention center in Alexandria. On the way, the lieutenant joined in the abuse, unleashing a stream of obscenities at my father and repeatedly telling him to "Shut the f*** up." When they arrived, the lieutenant violently shoved my father against a wall.

The human rights group Amnesty International has condemned the government's treatment of my father. "The conditions under which Dr. Al-Arian has been detained both during his pre-trial detention, and since his sentencing," Amnesty wrote in a February letter to the Attorney General, "appear to be unacceptably harsh and punitive."

My father immigrated to the United States in 1975 and eventually earned tenure as a computer engineering professor at the University of South Florida. As the son of Palestinians forcibly removed from their land after the creation of Israel in 1948, he considered it his obligation to bring attention to the plight of the Palestinian people from his position of influence in the United States. He held conferences and published literature to tell the story of Palestinians living under occupation.

His activism earned the ire of some of the most reactionary figures of the right, from self-declared "terror experts" like Steven Emerson to Bill O'Reilly, whose expertise on Middle Eastern affairs apparently does not extend to the falafel.

(See here, here and here to learn about Emerson's long history of hysterical, discredited claims.)

As the shrill cries for my father's prosecution intensified after 9/11, the Bush administration arrested him. According to an anonymous FBI source, Attorney General John Ashcroft personally ordered the indictment against my father, a mandate that puzzled the many career professionals assigned to the case. The political nature of the charges was apparent from the beginning. A jury empaneled by the federal government would reach the same conclusion three years later, concluding that the Bush administration's case was not much of a case at all.

But first my father would suffer under extremely restrictive, inhumane conditions clearly meant to psychologically break him before trial, including being placed in solitary confinement for 27 months. At one point, he was denied phone calls for six months, and while convicted felons were allowed to hug their families, my father, a pre-trial detainee, had to visit us behind glass. Even then, he was strip-searched before and after our visits. The cards were stacked against us.

When my father's trial finally began in June 2005, the government presented 71 witnesses, including nearly two dozen from Israel, paraded before the jury for sheer emotional effect. Four hundred phone calls out of half a million the government recorded during a decade of relentless, indiscriminate surveillance of my family were also presented. The prosecutors acted out the phone calls on the 13th floor of a courtroom in downtown Tampa, giving new meaning to the phrase political theater.

The government's evidence against my father largely consisted of speeches he gave, magazines he edited, lectures he presented, articles he wrote, books he owned (4 out of 5,000), conferences he organized, rallies he attended, and news he heard. In one particularly bizarre instance, the prosecutors presented as evidence a conversation a co-defendant had with my father in a dream.

Some of my father's detractors say that his criticism of Israel was overly strident. Often they deliberately de-contextualize his remarks, made nearly two decades ago, to undermine the credibility of the Palestinian narrative they have long sought to suppress. But whatever you think about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, you hopefully agree that the criminalization of political speech is un-American and violates the letter and spirit of the Constitution.

Because the government based its case on my father's expressed political views, our lawyers rested without presenting a single witness. Our defense was the First Amendment.

On Dec. 6, 2005, my father was acquitted of 8 of the 17 charges against him, though the jury voted 10 to 2 for full acquittal. Those holding out for conviction were the only two who listed themselves as readers of the Tampa Tribune, a paper which had slandered him for over a decade. Two of my father's three co-defendants were fully acquitted; the jury did not return a single guilty verdict in over 100 charges. The verdict was a testament to the hollow nature of government's case--an especially strong statement in the midst of post 9/11 hysteria.

Following the trial, the government had the option of dropping the charges against my father, but chose not to, once again revealing the political nature of his case. At the same time, they decided to casually drop tax-evasion charges against the founder of Hooters whose jury split evenly on his conviction.

Facing the prospect of a new trial that would drain my family emotionally and financially, my father decided to plead guilty to one charge of nonviolently supporting a designated terrorist group. In return, the government signed a plea agreement promising to drop the remaining charges, recommend the minimum sentence (which would have basically amounted to time-served) and allow my father to walk free on the condition that he leave the country. Disregarding the prosecutors' recommendation and dismissing the jury's verdict, the judge in the case gave my father the maximum sentence, which pushed his release date to this month.

Sadly, our story does not end there. An overzealous federal prosecutor with a documented record of bigoted remarks against Muslims, Gordon Kromberg, is trying to force my father to testify before a grand jury in Virginia in direct violation of his plea agreement. This is a ploy to bring further charges against my father and prolong his imprisonment -and our suffering--as much as possible. Kromberg himself bitterly referred to the plea agreement as a "bonanza" for my father.

Shortly before the Muslim observance of Ramadan began last October, Kromberg revealed an ulterior political motive behind his prosecution. When my father's attorney requested to delay a prison transfer during the holy month, a time he would have liked to spend with visits from his family, Kromberg responded:

"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."

Kromberg's racist outburst clearly calls his objectivity into question. Another reason my father has been reluctant to testify before a grand jury is because we fear Kromberg is setting up a perjury trap. The prosecutor did just that with another Muslim defendant in Virginia, who was acquitted by a federal judge. Following his acquittal, Kromberg summoned him to testify before a grand jury and charged him with making false statements when he didn't like his answers. The man, Sabri Benkhala, is now facing 25 years in prison.

My father has endured a decade of surveillance and government harassment, a draining six month trial, and the demonization of his entire family by self-serving right-wing demagogues, all the while hoping his nightmare would end. It should have when he was acquitted by a jury and the government promised his freedom. Surely, the fulfillment of that promise is not too much to ask.

(To learn more about Sami Al-Arian or to join the campaign for his freedom, visit freesamialarian.com)