by Nancy Welch
July 30, 2008
Dr. Sami Al-Arian, one of the earliest victims of the “war on terror” within the U.S. itself, continues to languish in jail, where he has been since his February 2003 arrest for the “crime” of speaking out on behalf of the Palestinian struggle against Israel’s apartheid.
Al-Arian’s daughter, Laila Al-Arian, is the author, with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Chris Hedges, of Collateral Damage: America’s War Against Iraqi Civilians. A graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism, she recently joined Al-Jazeera English as a producer.
Nancy Welch spoke with Laila on her recent visit to Burlington, Vt., where she sought a meeting with Sen. Patrick Leahy, a leading Democrat and chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. So far, Leahy has refused to investigate the circumstances and conditions under which Dr. Al-Arian is being held.
IN 2006, after a Florida jury refused to return a guilty verdict on any of the charges that the Bush Justice department had brought against him, your father signed a plea agreement with federal prosecutors to secure his release from prison. Why wasn’t your father released and deported as agreed? What’s happened since?
MY FATHER signed a plea agreement, and we thought that was that, and he would be released just a few months later. Then, this federal prosecutor, Gordon Kromberg, tried to bring him to Virginia. Kromberg has been on a six- or seven-year witch-hunt against Muslim organizations in the Northern Virginia area.
To describe where he’s coming from, he’s blogged about trips he’s taken to Israel and his fear of Palestinians. He’s made anti-Arab and anti-Muslim statements on the record that he’s never apologized for. During one trial in Virginia, he said “all Arabs lie”–that’s what he told the jury–and he said “don’t believe anything they tell you.”
This is a person with a lot of power and authority. Not to say that he’s the only one driving the ship–I think his bosses are supporting what he’s doing. But we know Kromberg wasn’t happy with the Florida jury’s verdict, and this was his way of trying to retry the case in Virginia.
Kromberg succeeded in getting my father moved to a Virginia jail, and for the next 18 months and more, he brought my father to the grand jury and tried to force him to testify. But had my dad testified, they would have charged him with perjury, maybe even obstruction of justice.
So he was held in civil contempt. During the 18 months my dad spent in civil contempt, he went on two different hunger strikes. He was trying to make a point that “I’m not going to testify. It’s against my principles, it’s against my plea agreement.”
Finally, when my dad was removed from contempt, there was a period where his sentence had run out. He had been removed from contempt, and yet he still wasn’t being deported, when one of the promises the government made in the plea agreement was to deport him expeditiously. They used that language, which is very important in this case. But of course, that never happened, and it’s been more than two years.
WHAT HAVE those two years been like for him, and how has he endured?
I WOULD say the completely lowest point was when he was in Jessup, Maryland. He was on a hunger strike, and the authorities there went completely ballistic. They put him on suicide watch. They took away all his clothes and put him in a paper-thin white gown. They took away his pillows, blankets, even his water–his cup of water.
We had a huge campaign at the time to call the prison and demand that he be treated with humanity and respect. A few days later, they removed him from isolation, and they started treating him better. I think that’s a really good example of the power of the people. It’s heartening to see that it actually does work.
WHAT ARE the most recent developments?
IN LATE June, my dad was indicted on two counts of criminal contempt. Now we’re awaiting the trial, which will take place August 13. A lot of lawyers have said it’s really unusual for someone to be placed in civil contempt, and then be charged with criminal contempt, because you’ve already punished the person for not testifying.
The scary thing about the criminal contempt charge is that it’s the only so-called crime on the American law books that has no minimum or maximum sentence–so it could range from less than five years to 10, 20, 30 years. We really have no idea.
The other thing–and this is a law that was passed post-9/11–is that the government can ask for terrorist-enhancement charges, which they tack on to charges to increase the prison time.
A JUDGE recently granted bail for your father. Why wasn’t he been released?
THE BAIL hearing for my father took place after my father finished his sentence, which ended on April 7, and before his indictment, which came down on June 24. So at the time of the bail hearing, he was in jail illegally–because you’re not allowed to just hold someone indefinitely for no reason. I think that’s still not allowed in this country.
But at that time, he was being taken from one ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] prison to the next. He was under ICE custody. At the bail hearing, when the judge decided to grant him bail, it was a really good day for us. She said on the record that he was neither a flight risk, nor a threat to any community. She did impose some restrictions, which we were okay with, so long as it meant that my father would be released.
But everything in my dad’s case is always the exception to every rule. Even if something good happens, somehow the government always finds a way to prevail. In this case, because he’s not a citizen, even though he was granted bail, ICE can detain him. The judge even said during the bail hearing, “I don’t have the authority to order ICE to release him. It’s going to be up to them.”
My brother and I went to the courthouse the following week–my brother had to sign some paperwork because he was the custodian if my father were released–and the woman at the courthouse who works in the clerk’s office told us, “Oh yeah, whenever the court says for a person to be released on bail, ICE 99 percent of the time will release a person.”
Of course, we’re that 1 percent exception.
WHERE IS your father now?
I JUST found out this morning that my dad has been moved from the U.S. marshal’s custody to ICE, and he’s now 75 miles away from Arlington, Virginia. He’s now in Winchester, Virginia, in ICE custody. It’s obvious they’re not planning on releasing him.
YOU CAME to Vermont hoping to meet in person with Patrick Leahy. What reason did the senator give for refusing to meet with you?
FROM WHAT I understand, his response is that it’s illegal for a representative or a senator to get involved in pending litigation. Well, we’ve been asking him to get involved way before there was any pending litigation.
The pending litigation [on the charge of criminal contempt] only happened last month, so Leahy had a chance for almost the past two years to get involved, and he didn’t. We know for a fact that he’s received hundreds of letters, faxes, e-mails and phone calls from people all over the world who are concerned about what’s happened to my father, and unfortunately, he hasn’t responded to any of these calls, including calls from his own constituents here in Vermont who I know are very concerned about the case.
There was a big window of time when he really could have taken the initiative to investigate the abuses going on in this case–and there are grave abuses. I think that as head of the Senate Judiciary Committee, he has the responsibility to oversee what the Bush Justice Department is doing.
Leahy’s committee has taken the right step of investigating the politicization of the Justice Department under [former Attorney General Alberto] Gonzales, but what’s the flip side of that coin? They’re looking into the issue of attorneys being fired during that time when Gonzales was ordering attorneys he didn’t agree with to be fired, but they should also be looking at who was being promoted. It’s people like Gordon Kromberg.
YOU’VE DEDICATED Collateral Damage, featuring interviews with more than 50 U.S. soldiers about the wretched treatment of Iraqi civilians under occupation, to your father. What are the connections between how your father is being treated and what the Iraqi people are being subjected to?
I THINK it’s just the same policies of this Bush administration. Bush went out of his way to say that this isn’t a war on Islam and Muslims, but I think the past almost eight years have shown otherwise.
They targeted someone like my father, who was an activist who just spoke his mind. I know that’s what the jury in Florida concluded, because that’s what they’ve told us, and that’s what they’ve told journalists on the record: that my father’s only so-called crime was exercising his First Amendment rights.
It’s the same in Iraq–this whole misguided notion of who Arabs and Muslims are, invading a country based on lies, lying to the American people just like they lied to the jury about my father’s case. Except, thankfully, the jury saw through that.
HOW DO you respond to Barack Obama’s recent arguments for reducing troops in Iraq to boost troop levels in Afghanistan?
I THINK you just need to look at the recent incidents in Afghanistan–we bombed civilians, there was an air strike on a wedding. But I also think few American people know about the effects of the war on Afghan civilians.
I met a veteran of the Afghanistan war, and he told me about one experience where he actually gave the people who were about to [conduct an] air strike in Afghanistan the wrong coordinates because the metal in the vehicle next to him interfered with his [Global Positioning System]. He said they bombed a village of Afghan civilians, and then they went to the village and told them, “We’re sorry the Taliban did this to you.” It’s really telling of how failed our policies are, how destructive occupation is to the people.
I think sending more troops to Afghanistan will also hurt our own military and our own troops who don’t want to be there. From what they’ve told me, they want to be back home here with their families; they’ve already served years in Iraq–enough is enough.
It’s also going to have long-term consequences on our own country when we’ve had all these young men and women serving in all these war zones, and under extremely difficulty circumstances.
OBAMA HAS also reaffirmed the U.S.’s “special relationship” with Israel while suggesting he would negotiate an agreement between the Israeli state and the Palestinians. What do you think of the prospects for peace under an Obama presidency?
I THINK the only way to be a credible peace-broker, if you will, in the Middle East is to actually consider both sides, and that’s never happened. Even at the Camp David Accords, the only thing the American negotiating team was doing was copying and pasting Israeli demands, and offering them to the Palestinians.
So if it’s just a matter of repeating that history, then no, I don’t think we’ll get very far. I think America does have a very important role as being one of Israel’s staunchest allies, and for that reason, I hope more Americans will inform themselves about the conflict and really dig deep and learn both sides of the narrative, because right now, the media is only offering one side. You very rarely get a glimpse of the actual history. They’ve done polls where a majority of Americans think it’s the Palestinians who are occupying the Israelis.
There’s such little depth to the coverage of this conflict, and yet seeing how much of our tax money goes to sustaining Israel, I think people really have a responsibility to learn as much as possible.
RECENTLY, HUNDREDS of Vermonters turned out to protest the attempt by Burlington’s municipal cable company to drop Al-Jazeera English from its offerings. What’s the significance of people rallying to keep Al-Jazeera on the air?
FIRST, I should say I’m not a spokesperson for Al-Jazeera, but I work there, and I obviously have tremendous respect and regard for the network. Al-Jazeera English is a refreshing change from what we’re offered here in this country, and it’s really encouraging to be in the one city in the United States that actually offers the network.
I think it’s great that people turned out in support of it–in support of free speech and also the opportunity to be exposed to more than one perspective. I hope that more cities in the U.S. follow that lead and insist that their cable companies provide Al-Jazeera, because how can we say we live in a democracy when we can’t even get a TV station?
HOW SERIOUSLY should we take right-wing, anti-Muslim groups like the “Vermont’s Defenders Council,” which has very few members but almost succeeded in suppressing Al-Jazeera?
I THINK we should take them very seriously. Even though they’re small in number, they’re very vocal, and they have a lot of influence. In Burlington, free speech and dialogue triumphed, but all over the country, suppression, censorship and fear-mongering have triumphed more often than anyone would like.
When I was in southern California recently, a theater agreed to screen a documentary about my father’s case called USA vs. Al-Arian, and they came under a heavy campaign by a right-wing group in the area and the theater decided to cancel it at the last minute. Thankfully, another theater stepped up to screen the film and didn’t capitulate to this fear-mongering campaign, but the first theater did, and that’s an example of where these groups do triumph.
We have to make sure our voices are louder than theirs. We have to stand up against them.
YOUR FATHER has been imprisoned for more than five years. What has been the impact on him and on your family, and what can people do to continue to stand up for him?
THERE HAVE been so many times when we thought this nightmare was finally over, and it wasn’t. It just continues.
It’s been devastating for our whole family–to see our father imprisoned, to see the sustained campaign by the U.S. government to put him through as much psychological–and sometimes even physical–torture as possible.
Being placed in complete isolation–that would drive anyone to a breaking point. Being cursed out and subjected to racist comments by prison guards and the marshals who transport him from prison to prison. Being taken from prison to prison. This is something that’s really a deliberate attempt to try to break someone, by constantly isolating them from their loved ones and their families. And for what? What did my father do to deserve the treatment he’s gotten?
Throughout this experience, we’ve learned so much more about the prison system than we ever imagined learning: just the way families themselves are humiliated; the way that guards talk to regular people visiting their families, yelling at them, turning people away who have driven 15 or 20 hours to visit their loved one, just because they’re wearing the wrong thing. It’s really heart-breaking. It’s terrible, too, seeing that the vast majority of prisoners in this country are minorities–Blacks and Latinos–the disproportionate numbers and the selective enforcement of laws.
But along the way, we’ve also had so much support from people, all over the country, all over the world, especially with the documentary [USA vs. Al-Arian]. It raised so much awareness throughout Europe, especially the Scandinavian countries, because it’s a Norwegian-produced documentary. In the Middle East, it screened on both Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya, the two Arab networks.
It’s been tremendous. I think that without all of the support from people, this would have been a much more difficult experience to go through than it already is.
Locally, in Florida, the Arab and Muslim community were so terrified. They were scared of the government. A lot of them were being visited by the FBI in this campaign of intimidation. So a lot of them really wanted nothing to do with us and shied away, and we felt very isolated–like our family had to deal with this whole thing by ourselves.
But–and this is probably one of the most beautiful parts of this whole nightmare–there’s this progressive Christian community and this community of local Tampa residents that stood by us. They would hold signs every single Monday during the trial saying, “Charity to orphans and widows is not a crime” and “Free Sami!”
And the jurors saw these people who looked just like them, just average Americans supporting the rights of this stateless Palestinian professor, and I’m sure that had a big effect on them.