TAMPA — The Bill of Rights guarantees persons accused of a crime a speedy trial, but Sami Al-Arian and his seven co-defendants have been in federal prison a year-and-a-half and their trial is not scheduled until next year at the earliest.

They were arrested Feb. 20, 2003, as Attorney General John Ashcroft unveiled a sensational, 50-count indictment charging them with providing financial assistance to the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. If convicted, the eight face life in prison.

“They came for him at 5:15 in the morning,” his wife Nahla Al-Arian told this reporter in an interview. “He is being held in solitary confinement at the so-called Special Housing Unit at Coleman Federal Penitentiary, 70 miles north of Tampa. His cell is in the worst part of the prison. The inmates call it ‘The Hole.’”

The guards strip search him every time he leaves and returns to his cell, she added. They come in with hoods and clubs and ransack his cell regularly.

Once the guards seized the handwritten notes he had written containing arguments in his defense. “He asked them, ‘Why are you taking my papers?’ He put his hands through the food slot to express his dismay. They slammed the cover down on his hands, badly injuring his fingers,” Nahla said.

“He is also handcuffed and shackled wherever he goes. On one occasion the shackles were so tight they caused painful injuries to his ankles that took long to heal. When we first heard of the torture at Abu Ghraib, we saw the similarities with the way they are treating Sami.”

The couple has five children, two sons and three daughters. Other inmates are allowed to meet their families in a reception room. But Al-Arian is separated from his family by a glass partition. “It is very cruel,” she said. “Especially our younger children ask, ‘Why do we have to talk to him by telephone? Why can’t we meet in the same room and hug him?’ My children are like orphans.”

Recently, they won an important legal victory. A federal judge ruled that the prosecutors must prove that the defendants had “prior knowledge” that financial aid was going to support acts of terrorism.

“Thank God we have some good judges who care about the Constitution and human rights!” she said. “They have no evidence against Sami. None. So why are they holding him? Why are they putting such intense pressure on him and the other defendants? They want them to turn informer.”

She cited as evidence an offer by the prosecutors to fellow-defendant, Sameeh Hammoudeh. “They told him they will drop all charges if he turns informer on the others. He refused so they went after his wife. They indicted her.”

Sami Al-Arian has a long history of involvement in the peace and justice movements in the Tampa Bay area, especially in the movement for the creation of an independent Palestinian state. He was a tenured professor of computer science at the University of South Florida when reactionary forces launched a witch-hunt to get him fired. A strong movement rose in his defense.

In the 2000 election, he supported George W. Bush on the basis of his claims he would restart the Middle East peace process. There is even a photograph of Bush together with Al-Arian and his family. “That was a big mistake,” Nahla said. “We were totally deceived by the Bush administration.”

When terrorists struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon Sept. 11, 2001, Sami Al-Arian appeared on local television to denounce the crime. He was invited to appear on Fox TV’s “O’Reilly Factor.” It was a setup. As Al-Arian denounced terrorism while upholding the rights of the Palestinian people, O’Reilly launched a venomous attack, accusing Al-Arian of being a terrorist himself. That attack unleashed the brutal witch-hunt that continues today.

Nahla’s brother, Mazen Al Najjar, also a USF professor, spent three-and-a-half years in prison even though he was never charged with a single crime. A non-citizen, the sole basis of his detention was his association with a pro-Palestinian group called World and Islam Studies Enterprise. He was deported to an Arab country in 2002.

Nahla Al-Arian takes heart in recent legal victories against the Justice Department’s disregard for constitutional rights, and is determined to see that her husband receives justice.

“Sami gives me courage,” she said. “We want contact visits so our kids can touch their father. We want freedom for Sami and the other defendants.”

The author can be reached at greenerpastures21212@yahoo.com.

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