Last Friday, federal prosecutors dropped all charges against Dr. Sami Al-Arian, University of South Florida professor, Palestinian activist and community leader, who has been in house arrest limbo for five years. Dr. Al-Arian is one in a long list of Palestinian activists who have been purposefully tied up in the legal system with their lives and activism disrupted, while federal prosecutors continued to look for actual evidence of criminal activity. In Dr. Al-Arian’s case, the repressive prosecutors finally gave up. As in the movie “USA vs. Al-Arian” – it often seems like it should be “USA vs. Palestinian Activists”.
Dr. Al-Arian was indicted in February 2003 on 17 counts of “racketeering” and support for a foreign terrorist organization under the Patriot Act. During the trial, many of the prosecution’s witnesses were flown in from Israel to testify about incidents with no connection to Dr. Al-Arian and his case. (This same approach had been used earlier in 1997 during the trial of Dr. Ashqar and his co-defendant Muhammad Salah.) As has become common in these cases of criminalizing Palestine activism using questionable evidence, a grand jury acquitted Dr. Al-Arian on 8 counts and was deadlocked on the remaining. To avoid the retrial, he agreed to a plea bargain and admitted to one of the remaining charges in exchange for being released and deported by April 2007.
But the U.S. government was not done looking for a way to further persecute him. As the release date approached, another federal prosecutor in Virginia demanded he testify before a grand jury in a different case. Dr. Al-Arian refused to testify not only because it violated the earlier plea bargain, but also it required him to talk about other Palestine activists in Florida. As a result, he was charged with criminal contempt. A defense motion to dismiss these charges was filed over five years ago, but the trial judge never ruled on the motion. The Federal District in Virginia is known as the “rocket docket” for its speedy trials, so a five year delay by Judge Brinkema with no explanation for failing to move the case along was highly unusual. But not so unusual in a case where federal prosecutors continued to look for evidence to deport Dr. Al-Arian. Even in the prosecutors’ motion to drop the criminal contempt charges, they were still insisting on the correctness of their case and still wanting to deport him.
The United States reaffirms the evaluations of the merit of the prosecution that were made in 2008 and again in 2010. Nevertheless, in light of the passage of time without resolution, the United States has decided that the best available course of action is to move to dismiss the indictment so that action can be taken to remove the defendant from the United States.
It took another U.S. District Court Judge, Anthony Trenga, to sign the order to accept the government’s motion to drop the charges and try to end twenty years of repression against Dr. Al-Arian.
The repression of Palestinian activists started before 9-11 and the Patriot Act. The campaign of surveillance and investigation of Dr. Al-Arian began in 1994. After the Patriot Act passed, the federal authorities finally had legal justification to indict Dr. Al-Arian in 2003 alleging he was affiliated with the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, listed in October of 1997 on the State Department list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO). The surveillance of Dr. Al-Arian began three years before the group he was alleged to be affiliated with was even designated as a FTO. Another indication that Palestine activism, normally considered free speech activity, was considered worthy of investigation by the FBI before repressive legislation like the Patriot Act was even enacted.
The Patriot Act gave federal law enforcement wider-reaching powers of spying and surveillance, and a much lower bar for finding evidence of a suspect “providing material support for a foreign terrorist organization”. After the Supreme Court case of Holder v. the Humanitarian Law Project in 2010, when the Court ruled against the Humanitarian Law Project, which was involved in training two organizations on the FTO list on methods to peacefully resolve conflicts. The Court decided this “training” activity as well as “expert advice or assistance”, “service”, and “personnel” constituted “material support to a FTO” based on the principle that any assistance could help to legitimize the FTO and free up resources for terrorist activities. Federal prosecutors were now able to consider any type of support – even “promoting” the political positions of a FTO became suspect – would be enough to start an investigation and in many cases to indict for support for terrorism. The Patriot Act combined with Holder v. the Humanitarian Law Project would lead to a series of Justice Department attacks on Palestine activists even in cases whether there was little to no evidence of wrong doing.
Dr. Al-Arian’s case is only one in a series of FBI and federal prosecutor attacks on Palestinian and Palestine solidarity activists. In another case from 1997 that began before 9-11 and the Patriot Act, former university professor Dr. Ashqar and his co-defendant Muhammad Salah, Palestinian Americans, were accused of alleged racketeering activity in support of Hamas after initial material support for terrorism charges were dropped. The only evidence was a confession Salah made while he was tortured for 80 days in an Israeli prison and the prosecution’s main witnesses were Israeli intelligence agents. Even with this questionable evidence, both were acquitted of all conspiracy and terrorism-related charges. Salah was convicted of obstruction of justice for filing false answers to interrogatories in a civil case and served 21 months. Dr. Abdelhaleem Ashqar remains in federal prison in Petersburg, Virginia for an unprecedented 11 years for refusing to testify to a grand jury and inform on the activities of other activists in the U.S. and Palestine. As Michael Deutsch, one of the defense counsels said at the time,
The district court, ignoring the fact that Dr. Ashqar was acquitted of a terrorism conspiracy, his long history of service to his people documented in hundreds of letters and the history of non-collaboration and civil disobedience vis-a-vis grand jury inquisitions, sentenced him to more time in prison than if he had committed a violent felony. The sentence fails to give proper respect to nonviolent acts based on political principle and unduly punishes a man motivated by love for his people and their right to resist an illegal occupation of their land. The sentence of Dr. Ashqar is a gross injustice and must be rectified.
As in the case of Dr. Al-Arian, when the federal prosecutors did not have the evidence to convict, a lesser case was manufactured to jail the defendant as in Saleh’s case, or the person is charged with contempt which can be extended indefinitely as in the case of Dr. Ashqar.
In December of 2001, the leaders of the Holy Land Foundation (HLF), at the time the largest Muslim charity in the U.S., were prosecuted by the Department of Justice Counter-terrorism Section and the leaders received prison sentences including Ghassan Elashi, the HLF Chairman, who is serving a 65-years. A similar pattern of juries initially rejecting questionable “evidence” happened with the HLF case. The first trial, in 2007, ended in the partial acquittal of one defendant and a hung jury on all other charges. The jury did not return any guilty verdicts. At a retrial in 2008, the jury found all defendants guilty on all counts. Unlike Dr. Al-Arian, the U.S. judicial system has still not freed Elashi as the Supreme Court turned down the appeal of the HLF case in 2012.
In a similar case where federal prosecutors targeted activists without evidence of criminal activity, well-known Palestinian and anti-war activists around the Midwest had their homes raided by the FBI when the U.S. attorney alleged that they had provided material support to foreign terrorist organizations in Palestine. There have been no indictments against the 23 activists, all of whom refused to testify in front of the grand jury, presumably because of a lack of evidence.
Most recently another Palestinian community leader and activist, Rasmea Odeh, was arrested by agents of the Department of Homeland Security and charged with immigration fraud. The indictment claims she did not disclose on her immigration application that she was arrested and convicted by an Israeli military court 45 years ago and then held in Israeli jails from 1969 until 1979. Like Muhammad Salah, she was convicted based on a confession obtained through torture. Her case also appears to be related to the case of the 23 Palestinian and anti-war activists subpoenaed to a grand jury in 2010. Assistant U.S. Attorney Barry Jonas is leading the ongoing investigation against the 23 and on the day of Odeh’s arrest, he was present in the courtroom consulting with the prosecutor. Barry Jonas was also part of the government’s prosecution team during the HLF trial. Odeh is another case of a Palestinian activist targeted for her political work and whose life and work is being disrupted by a manufactured charge by the Justice Department. Rasmea Odeh’s trial begins on September 8 in Detroit. The Rasmea Defense Committee is organizing fundraisers and supporters to be both inside and outside the courtroom to protest this vindictive attack on a Palestinian community leader. Like Dr. Al-Arian, the federal prosecutors are attacking Odeh’s record as an Palestine activist and hoping they can derail her work by a long trial based on an alleged twenty-year-old legal technicality. But her supporters, like those of Dr. Al-Arian, will not stop their efforts to have all charges dropped.
Even though the charges have been finally dropped against Dr. Al-Arian, the injustice of the charges, his time spent in prison, and his life disrupted cannot be erased. Many supporters are still waiting for similar charges to be dropped against Palestinians like Ghassan Elashi, Dr. Ashqar, and Rasmea Odeh.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Chicago Monitor’s editorial policy.