A Florida university professor arrested last week said on Feb. 25 he was being “crucified” by U.S. authorities and vowed to continue a protest hunger strike, Dr. Sami Al-Arian, a Palestinian born in Kuwait was arrested with three other men on Feb. 20.
The Department of Justice announced a 50-count indictment of eight Arab men, four of whom are not in the U.S. for crimes, including support of terrorism, racketeering and conspiracy to commit murder. The government claims that these individuals constituted a stateside support group of the Islamic Jihad, a group that has claimed credit for terrorist attacks against Israel.
Attorneys for the defendants deny the charges. A spokesmen for the Islamic Jihad also denied connections to the arrested men, Al-Arian, Sameeh Hamoudeh, Hatim Naji Fariz, and Gassan Zeyed Ballut.
The American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) and the Arab-American Institute Foundation are among a number of organizations raising questions about the indictments, especially of Al-Arian. The ADC statement says it “supports efforts to enhance our nation’s security but remains committed to ensuring that our civil rights are not violated in the process.” The ADC noted that Al-Arian has been under investigation for many years, and no evidence was ever presented suggesting his involvement with any illegal activity.
The government emphasized comments that Al- Arian had made about Israel some years ago, raising worries among civil libertarians that he is being singled out for opposing U.S. and Israeli policies in the Middle East.
Some civil libertarians also see these arrests as a way to win political support for even more far-reaching and anti-democratic laws, like the “Domestic Security Enhancement Act of 2003” which is being pursued by Attorney General John Ashcroft. Called Son of Patriot Act, this draft legislation allows for secret arrests and a host of other actions that contradict the Bill of Rights.
Al-Arian, the most high profile member of the group, was teaching engineering at the University of South Florida (USF) in Tampa. Al-Arian had been fighting efforts of the University to fire him after appearing on right-wing Fox News “The O’Reilly Factor.” In the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, when the media was anxious to promote the far-right line of vengeance, the show’s host, Bill O’Reilly, revived inflammatory but never proven charges against Al-Arian dating back, in some cases, 15 years. Those charges were that a now-defunct Islamic think tank Al-Arian founded and ran in conjunction with USF operated as a sort of home away from home for radical Palestinians and terrorists. The charges had been thoroughly investigated and rejected by USF, and an immigration judge; the FBI has been looking for years and never filed any charges, according to salon.com. After the sand bagging, the university administration began efforts to fire Al-Arian, which were strongly opposed by his faculty colleagues.
Al-Arian had also played a leading role in an unsuccessful effort to keep the government from deporting his brother-in-law, Mazzen al Najjar, on the basis of “secret evidence,” a procedure made legal under the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996. A federal judge had denied the government’s right to deport Al Najjar, and the Reno Justice Department appeared to have given up the effort to do so. However, after 9/11, the Ashcroft Justice Department promptly re-arrested Al Najjar without giving public reasons and promptly deported him.
Al-Arian, a very high profile member of the Arab-American and Muslim communities, had organized Muslim support in Florida for George Bush in the 2000 elections.