Alexander Cockburn: The Ongoing Persecution of Sami al-Arian (8/3)
August 3, 2008
By ALEXANDER COCKBURN
Efforts to free Sami al-Arian have now reached the U.S. Supreme Court. On July 30 an appeal was lodged with the Court by his attorneys, led by Professor Jonathan Turley.
There are few prospects in the justice system so grimly awful as when the feds decide never to let go. Rebuffed in their persecutions of some target by juries, or by contrary judges, they shift ground, betray solemn agreements, dream up new stratagems to exhaust their victims, drive them into bankruptcy, despair and even suicide. They have all the money and all the time in the world.
Several months ago I wrote here about the appalling vendetta conducted by the US Justice Department against Sami al-Arian, a professor from Florida who had the book thrown at him in 2003 by Attorney General Ashcroft. As I described it back then, Dr al-Arian was charged in a bloated terrorism and conspiracy case and spent two and a half years in prison, in solitary confinement awaiting trial.
In December 2005, a Tampa jury hung 10 to 2 in favor of acquittal on nine charges. In a plea deal, the government dropped eight of them and demanded Al-Arian plead guilty to a watered-down version of one charge. Normally a hung jury with so large a number of the jurors voting for innocence would mean the prosecutors would not demand a retrial. But given the Justice Department’s vindictiveness in this case and that it might insist on just such hugely expensive and protracted proceedings, Al-Arian’s lawyers urged him to accept the offer. Under the plea agreement—which the government betrayed --Dr. Al-Arian pled guilty to one charge of providing nonviolent services to people associated with a designated terrorist organization.
A central aspect of the plea agreement was an understanding that al-Arian would not be subject to further prosecution or called to cooperate with the government on any matter. Al-Arian and his lawyers have insistently maintained that the plea deal with Florida prosecutors protected him from cooperating in any additional cases. The government recommended the shortest possible sentence, no more than time served.
But then, almost certainly after a visit to the local federal prosecutors in Tampa by Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez, the feds double-crossed him on the plea agreement and he was thrown back into prison. The biased judge handed down the maximum sentence, which meant a further eleven months of incarceration before release and deportation slated for April 2007. Now Dr al-Arian passed into the malign orbit of prosecutors in Virginia, notably assistant federal prosecutor Gordon Kromberg. The DOJ’s plan now was to set up al-Arian in a perjury trap, compelling him to testify before a grand jury investigating an Islamic think tank called in a case that is unrelated to his. The Institute has been the target of a six-year witch-hunt by Kromberg.
On November 16, 2006, dragged up to Virginia, al-Arian was brought before the grand jury and placed in civil contempt for refusing to testify because the actual intend of the subpoena has been the attempt to trap him. When the grand jury’s term expired, Kromberg promptly empanelled a new one. Al-Arian continued to decline to testify, and was once more held in contempt.
Shunted between prisons in Atlanta, Petersburg and Alexandria, Dr al-Arian endured hunger strikes and maltreatment from guards.
Even with the additional time served, Dr. Al-Arian’s sentence ended on April 7 of this year. He was then taken into the custody of immigration authorities who were making preparations for his deportation. On June 26 the Department of Justice elected to plunge al-Arian and his family into fresh torments, thus prolonging the slow moving auto da fe of the past five years. A new federal indictment charged Dr. Al-Arian with two counts of criminal contempt, relating to the efforts by Virginia prosecutors to bring him before a grand jury investigating other Muslim organizations. Al Arian now faces additional prison time if convicted.
“This indictment proves that the government was never interested in any information that Dr. Al-Arian has on the IIIT [i.e., the International Institute of Islamic Thought] matter,” said his attorney, Professor Jonathan Turley, who has represented al-Arian since May 2007. “They have indicted him despite the fact that the prosecutors admitted that he is a minor witness in the IIIT investigation and he has already given two detailed statements under oath to the government and offered to take a polygraph examination to prove that he has given true information about his knowledge of IIIT. Dr. Al-Arian has addressed every document cited by the government as the reason for his being called before the grand jury. He has shown that he has no incriminating information to offer against either IIIT or its officers.”
On June 30, 2008, Al-Arian was arraigned before US District Judge Leonie Brinkema for the Eastern District of Columbia, but Al-Arian did not enter a plea as Turley stated they were not prepared to do so. The Court, then, entered a not guilty plea on Dr al-Arian’s behalf and scheduled a trial to begin on August 13. According to a statement issued by Turley, the government is further seeking to indict Dr. Al-Arian for the period under which he was under civil contempt confinement. Thus, after holding him for a year, the government now seeks to punish him for the same period of the confinement.
Turley writes on his website that “the petition for a writ of certiorari appeals the decision of the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. The lower court refused to consider evidence that the prosecutors violated Dr. Al-Arian’s 2006 plea agreement in ordering him to testify before a Virginia grand jury. Dr. Al-Arian has asked for an evidentiary hearing to establish that he was expressly promised by the Justice Department that he would not have to cooperate in any way after his plea agreement. Indeed, he accepted a longer sentence to secure that concession. The final standard cooperation language was indeed removed from the agreement, but the court refused to consider evidence outside of the agreement showing that the removal of the language was due to an express promise by the government. Other circuits allow for such evidence to be considered — producing a split in the circuits. The Eleventh Circuit decision effectively allows the Justice Department to get away with a classic “bait and switch” tactic where the government assures a defendant that a condition is accepted and then, after he pleads guilty, refuses to comply with the condition because it was not expressly added to the plea agreement.”