In the conclusion of ten years of intense litigation, Dr. Sami Al-Arian and his wife Nahla boarded a plane last night and left the United States for Turkey. He arrived in Istanbul a couple hours ago. I was Dr. Al-Arian’s lead criminal defense counsel in Virginia until all charges were eventually dropped by the United States Department of Justice against him. I have received many calls from the media over the last couple of days and I have declined to respond because Dr. Al-Arian was represented by an immigration law team after the criminal proceedings concluded. I wanted to defer to those lawyers in any media comments, as I have since handed over the case last year. Dr. Al-Arian issued the statement below this morning.
Dr. Al-Arian’s case raised troubling due process, academic freedom, and free speech issues. He is a Palestinian-American civil rights activist who was also a computer engineering professor at University of South Florida (USF). He had a successful academic career at USF and held permanent resident status since March 1989. He applied for U.S. citizenship and even campaigned for George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential election.
Dr. Al-Arian was indicted in February 2003 on 17 counts under the Patriot Act, but a jury acquitted him on 8 counts and deadlocked on the remaining 9 counts. The trial was handled by Dr. Al-Arian’s Florida trial attorneys, the late Bill Moffitt and Linda Moreno, who did an incredible job.
It was later revealed that jury overwhelmingly supported acquittal. The jurors 10-2 for acquittal on the remaining counts. Tapped out of money and wanting closure, Dr. Al-Arian agreed to a plea bargain that admitted to one of the charges in exchange for a promise that after a maximum of incarceration of 57 months, he would be allowed to leave the country by April 2007. (Amnesty International would later condemn his incarceration as “gratuitously punitive” and inhumane). He pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to contribute services to or for the benefit of the Palestine Islamic Jihad (PIJ), a Specially Designated Terrorist organization, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 371. However, that contribution was described as hiring a lawyer for his brother-in-law during his immigration battle in the late 1990s; sponsoring a Palestinian historian in 1994 to conduct research in the U.S.; and withholding information from a U.S. journalist during a 1995 interview. Many noted at the time that none of those acts were clearly criminal.
Notably, many saw the deal as nothing more than the Justice Department seeking some face saving measure of punishment after its defeat in Tampa and many felt that Dr. Al-Arian should not have signed it. However, he wanted to continue with his academic career and be with his family, including young children. Yet, rather than fulfilling that commitment, the Justice Department called him to a grand jury for additional testimony in Northern Virginia. Dr. Al-Arian objected that he was assured that he would not be forced into any additional proceedings and many viewed the grand jury was a “perjury trap” where the prosecutors would charge on any statement that could be alleged to be inaccurate or untrue. He refused.
The Virginia litigation began in 2006 in Alexandria Virginia. The litigation would be intense for years as we sought to enforce his plea agreement but the federal court insisted that he would have to testify and the Justice Department secured a civil contempt order on November 16, 2006. This was appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. It was after the Fourth Circuit decision that I was brought on a lead criminal defense counsel. The Justice Department continued to call Dr. Al-Arian and effectively prolong his incarceration under civil contempt rules.
Dr. Al-Arian engaged in a series of hunger strikes, including a 60-day hunger strike on January 22, 2007 in protest to his treatment and there was an international movement in support of his release.
In addressing the proceedings in Virginia, we took the unusual step of hiring a former FBI polygraphed to ask Dr. Al-Arian every known question about the investigation into an organization called IIIT in Virginia, purportedly the reason for his being called before the grand jury (Notably, not a single indictment for IIIT would come out of the grand jury proceedings which lasted for years and was viewed by many defense lawyers as a runaway investigation and fishing expedition). We even solicited from the Justice Department. The polygraph showed that Dr. Al-Arian had little knowledge of the matters under investigation and he passed every question as answering truthfully. We submitted the results to the Justice Department. We also received additional questions from the Justice Department and submitted a sworn affidavit on those questions. It was clear that Dr. Al-Arian was not withholding information. Indeed, any information that he had was ridiculously out of date given his years of incarceration in solitary confinement and tight restrictions on communications.
Eventually, the civil contempt sanction was lifted, but the Justice Department then, on June 26, 2008, indicted him on two counts of criminal contempt, for unlawfully and willfully refusing court orders that he testify. On September 2, 2008, we were able to secure his release from jail and a court order for Dr. Al-Arian to be subject to house arrest. It was a major change in the case. We were able to later lift the restrictions of monitoring on the home confinement.
On March 9, 2010, Judge Leonie Brinkema postponed the criminal contempt trial, pending our motion to dismiss the charges in the case on the grounds of the plea agreement, flaws in the indictment, prosecutorial abuse, selective prosecution and other grounds. We also asked the Justice Department to investigate the professional misconduct in the case (which it declined to do). The litigation over the indictment continued until, on June 27, 2014, Assistant U.S. Attorney Gordon D. Kromberg moved to dismiss the indictment.
Dr. Al-Arian leaves behind five children and grandchildren. His children are highly successful in their own right, including multiple books and impressive academic work. The family has been a rock of support for Dr. Al-Arian throughout these incredibly trying years. Nahla and the family formed a tight, protective circle to get through these traumatic years. After the release in 2008, Dr. Al-Arian became a doting grandfather and stayed with his children in Virginia.
I met with Dr. Al-Arian and Nahla shortly before they left the country. They were already missing their children and grandchildren, but excited to start a new chapter in their life. It is not clear whether he will resume teaching in Turkey but he is likely to continue his writing and lecturing in some form. Despite being subjected to extremely cruel treatment and conditions, he is not bitter and remains committed to the principles of freedom that first drew him to the United States. Indeed, his family is an American success story with five children who have secured advanced degrees from leading universities and will remain in the United States in teaching, journalism and other fields. It has been a particular pleasure to get to know them and watch their professional advancement over the course of this litigation.
The Al-Arian case will remain a chilling chapter in our history. The treatment of Dr. Al-Arian after his acquittal on most of the charges was widely viewed as a shocking abuse of the system and a flagrant violation of agreement reached with the Justice Department. The Justice Department put unprecedented effort into the Florida prosecution and suffered one of its greatest trial defeats in an area where convictions were taken for granted. The later proceedings were viewed as retaliatory and abusive by prosecutors. It also showed how the civil and contempt laws can be used to abuse individuals and leave them with little recourse or rights. Justice ultimately prevailed but the cost to Dr. Al-Arian and his family was prohibitively high. The Virginia litigation was not about Dr. Al-Arian’s views or associations. It was about due process and how we handle criminal trials and plea agreements in this country. The United States reached a deal with this man that committed his country to allowing him to leave following his jail stint. No matter how one feels about Dr. Al-Arian’s writings or beliefs, we should honor our agreements as a nation. Instead, the Justice Department broke that deal and then daisy-chained contempt citations to prolong his incarceration. It was abusive and it was wrong. It is now over.
Dr. Al-Arian and his wife will start anew in Turkey. He told me in our final meeting how very grateful he was to his many friends and supporters for what they gave to him. He remained optimistic about the future and spoke of his continued faith in the fundamental civil liberties that define our country. We spoke of how long this process proved since we first met in a holding cell in Virginia. At the time, he was weak from his hunger strike and we knew little about each other. Over the years, our respective families grew and the world has changed in so many different ways. It felt like a 1000 years ago when Sami was brought in from solitary confinement for our first meeting. I wish him and Nahla all the best in the next chapter of their life together. They clearly leave these shores with a heavy heart despite the pain of the prosecution. This country took much but also gave much to their family. They are now again fully in control of their future together.
Here is Dr. Al-Arian’s final statement:
February 4, 2015
A Statement by Dr. Sami A. Al-Arian
To my dear friends and supporters,
After 40 years, my time in the U.S. has come to an end. Like many immigrants of my generation, I came to the U.S. in 1975 to seek a higher education and greater opportunities. But I also wanted to live in a free society where freedom of speech, association and religion are not only tolerated but guaranteed and protected under the law. That’s why I decided to stay and raise my family here, after earning my doctorate in 1986. Simply put, to me, freedom of speech and thought represented the cornerstone of a dignified life.
Today, freedom of expression has become a defining feature in the struggle to realize our humanity and liberty. The forces of intolerance, hegemony, and exclusionary politics tend to favor the stifling of free speech and the suppression of dissent. But nothing is more dangerous than when such suppression is perpetrated and sanctioned by government. As one early American once observed, “When the people fear their government, there is tyranny; when the government fears the people, there is liberty.” Because government has enormous power and authority over its people, such control must be checked, and people, especially those advocating unpopular opinions, must have absolute protections from governmental overreach and abuse of power. A case in point of course is the issue of Palestinian self-determination. In the United States, as well as in many other western countries, those who support the Palestinian struggle for justice, and criticize Israel’s occupation and brutal policies, have often experienced an assault on their freedom of speech in academia, media, politics and society at large. After the tragic events of September 11th, such actions by the government intensified, in the name of security. Far too many people have been targeted and punished because of their unpopular opinions or beliefs.
During their opening statement in my trial in June 2005, my lawyers showed the jury two poster-sized photographs of items that government agents took during searches of my home many years earlier. In one photo, there were several stacks of books taken from my home library. The other photo showed a small gun I owned at the time. The attorney looked the jury in the eyes and said: “This is what this case is about. When the government raided my client’s house, this is what they seized,” he said, pointing to the books, “and this is what they left,” he added, pointing to the gun in the other picture. “This case is not about terrorism but about my client’s right to freedom of speech,” he continued. Indeed, much of the evidence the government presented to the jury during the six-month trial were speeches I delivered, lectures I presented, articles I wrote, magazines I edited, books I owned, conferences I convened, rallies I attended, interviews I gave, news I heard, and websites I never even accessed. But the most disturbing part of the trial was not that the government offered my speeches, opinions, books, writings, and dreams into evidence, but that an intimidated judicial system allowed them to be admitted into evidence. That’s why we applauded the jury’s verdict. Our jurors represented the best society had to offer. Despite all of the fear-mongering and scare tactics used by the authorities, the jury acted as free people, people of conscience, able to see through Big Brother’s tactics. One hard lesson that must be learned from the trial is that political cases should have no place in a free and democratic society.
But despite the long and arduous ordeal and hardships suffered by my family, I leave with no bitterness or resentment in my heart whatsoever. In fact, I’m very grateful for the opportunities and experiences afforded to me and my family in this country, and for the friendships we’ve cultivated over the decades. These are lifelong connections that could never be affected by distance.
I would like to thank God for all the blessings in my life. My faith sustained me during my many months in solitary confinement and gave me comfort that justice would ultimately prevail.
Our deep thanks go to the friends and supporters across the U.S., from university professors to grassroots activists, individuals and organizations, who have stood alongside us in the struggle for justice.
My trial attorneys, Linda Moreno and the late Bill Moffitt, were the best advocates anyone could ask for, both inside and outside of the courtroom. Their spirit, intelligence, passion and principle were inspirational to so many.
I am also grateful to Jonathan Turley and his legal team, whose tireless efforts saw the case to its conclusion. Jonathan’s commitment to justice and brilliant legal representation resulted in the government finally dropping the case.
Our gratitude also goes to my immigration lawyers, Ira Kurzban and John Pratt, for the tremendous work they did in smoothing the way for this next phase of our lives.
Thanks also to my children for their patience, perseverance and support during the challenges of the last decade. I am so proud of them.
Finally, my wife Nahla has been a pillar of love, strength and resilience. She kept our family together during the most difficult times. There are no words to convey the extent of my gratitude.
We look forward to the journey ahead and take with us the countless happy memories we formed during our life in the United States.