When our government acts, it acts in our name. If its acts are lawful and honorable, all’s well and good. When they are dishonorable, we have a choice: Either we dissent or assent, even if by our silence.
In the case of Dr. Sami al-Arian, the Bush Justice Department has acted in a most disgraceful manner. Al-Arian was arrested in February 2003 with great fanfare (U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft announced the arrest). The voluminous indictment in general terms accused al-Arian of supporting terrorism by being the U.S. leader of Islamic Jihad, a Palestinian pro-independence group the U.S. government chooses to call a terrorist organization.
The first dishonorable act was to deny him bail. He was held in prison, innocent in the eyes of our law, for two years before they got around to a trial. That lasted five months. The government’s case was so nonsensical that his lawyers did not even present one witness. They rested their case as soon as the prosecution rested its case.
The jury saw it the same way. It voted not guilty on practically all of the counts and reported that it was deadlocked, 10 to 2, in favor of acquittal, on the others. Al-Arian’s reaction to the verdict: "God bless America." The government should have released al-Arian while it made up its mind whether to retry him on the remaining counts. Instead, he was kept in prison.
By this time, al-Arian was broke, his family distraught, so he negotiated a plea bargain. In the plea bargain, the Justice Department agreed that what he was pleading guilty to (helping some immigrants) involved no violence, no victims and no support for a forbidden organization. The Justice Department also agreed to a minimum sentence.
Then U.S. District Judge James Moody disgraced himself by acting as if al-Arian had been convicted instead of acquitted, and, after berating him in the courtroom, sentenced him to 57 months. Judges have the authority to ignore plea bargains, but there was no justification, other than this judge’s bias, in this case.
Then another U.S. attorney, who likes to publicly boast of his ardent support for Israel, found another way to persecute al-Arian. He subpoenaed him to testify before a grand jury in Virginia, even though as part of his plea bargain, al-Arian had said he would not testify against anyone else. Al-Arian was then found in contempt of the grand jury so that he could be held up to 18 months before he could resume serving his original sentence. This is a ploy that can be used repeatedly.
Al-Arian has gone on a hunger strike to protest this shoddy treatment and is now approaching a danger point. I have no doubt the federal authorities would be happy if he dies. They have shuffled him around from one prison to another, held him in solitary confinement and denied him medical care and access to his family and his lawyers. In short, they have acted more like the former KGB than Americans.
Dr. Arian was a tenured professor of computer science at the University of South Florida. He was well thought of by his students and had won a couple of awards. What got him in trouble was that he was an outspoken advocate of civil rights and of Palestinian independence. I met him some years ago when he was trying to free his brother-in-law from federal prison, where he was being held on "secret evidence." That effort was eventually successful.
Sami al-Arian is an intelligent, well-educated man. In our conversations, I never heard him say anything radical and certainly nothing anti-American. He loves this country. His wife is an American citizen. His children are Americans by birth. He’s been here since 1975. He should be an American citizen, but even though he passed the test, his citizenship was denied. It should not be a crime for a Palestinian to want Palestinian independence. It should not be a crime for a Palestinian in America to speak out on behalf of the Palestinian people. He has had some harsh things to say about Israel, but Israelis have had harsh things to say about Palestinians. The Justice Department is charged with protecting Americans, not with acting as an auxiliary of the Mossad or the Shin Bet.
This is just one more case of the Bush administration trashing the Constitution and making bad appointments to the bench and to the U.S. attorney’s offices.