In 2003, Sami Al-Arian was a professor at the University of South Florida, a legal resident of the U.S. since 1975, and one of the most prominent Palestinian civil rights activists in the U.S. That year, the course of his life was altered irrevocably when he was indicted on highly controversial terrorism charges by then Attorney General John Ashcroft. These charges commenced a decade-long campaign of government persecution in which Al-Arian was systematically denied his freedom and saw his personal and professional life effectively destroyed.
Despite the personal harm he suffered and the intense surveillance to which he had been subjected since as early as 1993, the government ultimately failed to produce any evidence of Al-Arian’s involvement in terrorist activities, instead relying at trial overwhelmingly on the pro-Palestinian writing and speaking he had done over the years.
His ordeal finally ended last night, 12 years after it began, as Al-Arian was deported yesterday at midnight (EST) from the United States to Turkey. His deportation was part of a 2006 plea bargain to which he acquiesced in order, he told The Intercept last night while at the airport preparing to leave the U.S., to “conclude his case and bring an end to his family’s suffering.” Al-Arian added: “I came to the United States for freedom, but four decades later, I am leaving to gain my freedom.”
A 2003 Justice Department investigation led by Ashcroft allegedly implicated Al-Arian and 8 other men in supporting Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), a group which had been designated a terrorist organization under the Clinton administration for carrying out bombings and other attacks in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian Territories. Ironically, Al-Arian had been a prominent supporter of Clinton, and even met Clinton in the White House. He once remarked to The Intercept that the multiple occasions when he stood in very close proximity to the U.S. President should, by itself, demonstrate how ludicrous were the “terrorist” allegations. In 2000, he supported the Bush campaign (after Bush denounced racial profiling).
Al-Arian, while a Professor at the University of South Florida, was indicted on multiple counts of providing “material support” to the group and fundraising on their behalf in the United States. In the press conference announcing the indictment, Ashcroft claimed that Al-Arian and his co-defendants “financed, extolled and assisted acts of terror,” and praised the recently passed Patriot Act as being instrumental to helping bring about the charges.
The charges were part of a broader post-9/11 campaign to by the U.S. Government to criminalize aid and support to Palestinians, as exemplified by the successful prosecution of five officials of what had been the largest Muslim charity in the U.S., the Holy Land Foundation. Those charity officials are now serving decades in prison for sending money to Palestinians which, it was alleged, made its way to designated terror groups in the Occupied Territories.
For most of the three years after his arrest, Al-Arian was kept in solitary confinement awaiting trial. During this time, he was regularly subjected to strip-searches, denied normal visitation rights with his family, and allegedly abused by prison staff. Amnesty International denounced the circumstances of his detention as “gratuitously punitive” and in violation of international standards on the treatment of prisoners.
When Al-Arian’s case did finally reach trial after years of harsh imprisonment, prosecutors failed to convict Al-Arian on even one charge brought against him. Jurors voted to acquit him on the most serious counts he faced and deadlocked on the remainder of the indictments.