Laila al-Arian was wearing her headscarf at her desk at Nation Books, one of my New York publishers. No, she told me, it would be difficult to telephone her father. At the medical facility of his North Carolina prison, he can only make a few calls – monitored, of course – and he was growing steadily weaker.
Sami al-Arian is 49 but he stayed on hunger strike for 60 days to protest the government outrage committed against him, a burlesque of justice which has, of course, largely failed to rouse the sleeping dogs of American journalism in New York, Washington and Los Angeles.
All praise, then, to the journalist John Sugg from Tampa, Florida, who has been cataloguing al-Arian’s little Golgotha for months, along with Alexander Cockburn of Counter Punch.
The story so far: Sami al-Arian, a Kuwaiti-born Palestinian, was a respected computer professor at the University of South Florida who tried, however vainly, to communicate the real tragedy of Palestinian Arabs to the US government. But according to Sugg, Israel’s lobbyists were enraged by his lessons – al-Arian’s family was driven from Palestine in 1948 – and in 2003, at the instigation of Attorney General Ashcroft, he was arrested and charged with conspiring “to murder and maim” outside the United States and with raising money for Islamic Jihad in “Palestine”. He was held for two and a half years in solitary confinement, hobbling half a mile, his hands and feet shackled, merely to talk to his lawyers.
Al-Arian’s $50m (£25m) Tampa trial lasted six months; the government called 80 witnesses (21 from Israel) and used 400 intercepted phone calls along with evidence of a conversation that a co-defendant had with al-Arian in – wait for it – a dream. The local judge, a certain James Moody, vetoed any remarks about Israeli military occupation or about UN Security Council Resolution 242, on the grounds that they would endanger the impartiality of the jurors.
In December, 2005, al-Arian was acquitted on the most serious charges and on those remaining; the jurors voted 10 to two for acquittal. Because the FBI wanted to make further charges, al-Arian’s lawyers told him to make a plea that would end any further prosecution. Arriving for his sentence, however, al-Arian – who assumed time served would be his punishment, followed by deportation – found Moody talking about “blood” on the defendant’s hands and ensured he would have to spend another 11 months in jail. Then prosecutor Gordon Kromberg insisted that the Palestinian prisoner should testify against an Islamic think tank. Al-Arian believed his plea bargain had been dishonoured and refused to testify. He was held in contempt. And continues to languish in prison.