Since March 3, 2008, Palestinian activist and a former professor of South Florida University, Dr. Sami Al-Arian, is on hunger strike to protest continued government harassment. On that day he was informed that he would be called to testify before a third grand jury in Virginia on March 19, only three weeks before his scheduled release date of April 7, 2008. But his release is likely to be pushed back indefinitely when he appears before the grand jury.
As a matter of fact, Dr. Al-Arian is in a Catch-22 situation. Assistant U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of Virginia, Gordon Kromberg, is setting up for him a perjury/obstruction trap. If Dr. Al-Arian again refuses to testify because of the no-cooperation agreement, he will be charged with obstruction of justice and could receive several additional years in prison. If he testifies, he faces a â€˜perjuryâ€™ trap based on past practice with other acquitted Palestinian defendants.
Kromberg has charged other acquitted Palestinian defendants with perjury, when they did testify before his grand jury. Other acquitted Palestinian defendants have been charged with â€œobstruction of justice,â€ when they declined. The other acquitted Palestinian defendants facing the same â€œHobsonâ€™s choiceâ€ have been given â€œterrorism-enhancedâ€ sentences of 5 to 10 years whether they answered grand jury questions or not after juries already acquitted them of the underlying charges.
In November 2007, Dr. Abdelhaleem Ashqar, a Palestinian-American former professor at Washingtonâ€™s Howard University, was sentenced to more than 11 years in prison for refusing to testify in 2003 before a grand jury investigating the Palestinian militant movement Hamas. Dr. Ashqar was convicted of criminal contempt and obstruction of justice. Tellingly, in February 2007 a jury had acquitted Dr. Ashqar of all terror-related charges.
â€œA great nation is ultimately defined and judged by its system of justice,â€ Al-Arian said in a statement released through his family. â€œWhen the system is manipulated by the powerful and tolerates abuses against the minorities or the weak members of society, the government not only loses its moral authority and betrays future generations, but will also be condemned by history.â€
On the third testimony call Dr. Al-Arianâ€™s lead Counsel, Professor Jonathen Turley, said: â€œHaving lost the case in Florida, the Justice Department has openly sought to extend his confinement by daisy-chaining grand juries. As in other cases, the government has given Dr. Al-Arian the choice of an obvious perjury trap or a contempt sanction. It is a choice that is obnoxious to our legal system and contrary to any standard of decency.â€
The mistreatment of Dr. Al-Arian remains an international symbol of how the Bush Administration has discarded fundamental principles of fairness in a blind pursuit of retribution against this political activist, he stressed.
When Dr. Sami Al-Arian was arrested in 2003, the then Attorney General John Ashcroft declared a major victory in the â€œwar against terrorism.â€ Two years later in December 2005, after the Justice Department had spent an estimated $50 million prosecuting him, a Florida jury rejected charges that Al-Arian and three co-defendants had financed and promoted Middle East terrorism.
In May, 2006, Al-Arian accepted a plea deal, admitting to helping associates of a terrorist group with immigration and legal matters. Federal prosecutors recommended Al-Arian be released from prison in a few months and deported. But Tampa federal judge James S. Moody extended his sentence until April, 2007.
A few months before his scheduled release, Gordon Kromberg, an assistant U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of Virginia, subpoenaed Al-Arian to testify before a grand jury or face civil contempt charges.
Court transcripts from the original case show that Al-Arianâ€™s lawyers made his refusal to testify in any further cases a condition of his plea. The agreement was apparently not put in writing and Judge Moody ruled that the exemption â€œwas not memorialized in writingâ€™â€™ and was not binding.â€™
Kromberg has subpoenaed Al-Arian three times to testify before a Virginia grand jury, which has been convened to look at the activities of an Islamic think tank in Virginia. Twice, Al-Arian was charged with civil contempt for refusing to testify, which extended his time in prison a year beyond his sentence.
In December, 2007, a federal judge in Virginia lifted Al-Arianâ€™s contempt charge and he was scheduled to be released in early April, 2008. But on March 3, Kromberg issued a third subpoena which, if Al-Arian refuses to testify, could keep him in prison for another 18 months.
In the words of Professor Peter Erlinder, former president of the National Lawyers Guild, the treatment accorded to the acquitted but still detained academic Palestinian activist from Tampa – now on hunger strike and in danger of irreversible renal failure at a federal prison hospital – is abuse of power amounting to torture taking place in the United States itself under the aegis of the Bush Administration and its â€œwar on terrorâ€.
The Bush veto of the torture limitation bill on March 8, 2008 demonstrates the Bush-Cheney â€œwar on terrorâ€ is not really about terrorism at all, but is a politically-motivated assault directed against the constitution and the rule of law, Prof. Erlinder argued, adding: Bush administrationâ€™s abuse of power in its treatment of Dr. Sami al Arian and other acquitted Palestinian â€œterrorism-defendantsâ€ has already demonstrated that â€œtortureâ€ for this administration is commonplace – even here.
Abdus Sattar Ghazali is the Executive Editor of the online magazine, American Muslim Perspective: www.amperspective.com email: firstname.lastname@example.org.