The refusal of a 12-member jury in Tampa, Fla., Dec. 6 to convict Dr. Sami Al-Arian of any of the 51 “terrorism” charges against him was another in a string of defeats for the Bush administration in its use of the Patriot Act in witch-hunt trials.
“There was no evidence to support the charges against him,” said the Rev. Sharon Streater, a peace and justice leader who stood with Al-Arian, his wife Nahla, and their five children throughout the two years he has been in prison and five months on trial. “The Justice Department should just let it go! Stop persecuting this man and his family,” Streater told the World.
Cheers erupted in an overflow hearing room in the federal courthouse in Tampa when the jury foreman read the verdict. Moments later, a crowd of more than 100 family and friends gathered on the courthouse steps to celebrate the stunning victory. “Not a single guilty verdict,” exclaimed his lawyer, Linda Moreno. “I have to say, that was more ‘not guilty’ verdicts in those 20 minutes than I’ve heard in my 25 years as a defense attorney.”
The jury found Al-Arian, a permanent resident of the U.S., innocent of eight criminal charges, including that he belonged to a front group that funneled financial contributions to “terrorists” in Palestine. They also found him not guilty of perjury and immigration violations.
But after deliberating for 13 days, the jury deadlocked on the nine remaining counts. Two jurors refused to join the majority in finding Al-Arian innocent of all charges.
Just last month, the Justice Department was forced to drop its designation of Jose Padilla as an “enemy combatant.” They announced that Padilla, a U.S. citizen, will be tried on charges far less serious than the “dirty bomb” plot announced by then-Attorney General John Ashcroft two years ago. The Justice Department has dropped “terrorism” charges against virtually all the detainees rounded up under the Patriot Act. They are now being tried for routine violations of their immigrant status.
In a telephone interview, his wife, Nahla, told the World, “It’s a big victory. I saw Sami yesterday and he feels vindicated. He said all along if he could get a fair trial and not be tried in the newspapers, he would be acquitted. The real heroes were the jurors. It took a lot of courage to come up with this verdict. They stood up to the fear and intimidation that our government has imposed since 9/11.”
She was deeply disappointed that her husband and the three other defendants, Sameeh T. Hammoudeh, Ghassan Ballut, and Hatim Fariz, did not win full acquittal. “Only two jurors held out. The other jurors complained that these two could not give them any reason for not joining in acquittal.”
She voiced anger that he is still in prison. “I am anxious. I don’t know what will happen now,” she said. “But I hope things will be better than before. Our lawyers are going to file papers asking that he be released.” The Justice Department, enraged by the defeat, is now weighing whether to re-try Al-Arian and the other defendants or seek their deportation.
Their case rested on 20,000 hours of FBI wiretaps of Al-Arian’s phone conversations many pursuant to the Patriot Act. Al-Arian was fired from his job as a professor of computer science at the University of South Florida (USF) in 2003 for his outspoken defense of Palestinian statehood. His brother in law, also employed at USF, was deported. Al-Arian has spent two years in solitary confinement at a nearby federal penitentiary.
Dwight Lawton, president of the Tampa Bay chapter of Veterans for Peace, attended many days of the trial and was present when Arian was acquitted. “The government was looking for an opportunity to get Sami al-Arian,” he told the World. “I think the events of 9/11 and the Patriot Act emboldened the Bush administration. They thought 9/11 had enflamed public opinion against the Muslim community and they could empanel a jury that would convict him.” The verdict, he said, proved that the people embrace freedom of speech. The repressive sections of the Patriot Act that menace the Bill of Rights “should be repealed,” he said.
Streater echoed that view. “This case is a test of the First Amendment,” she said. “Do we believe in our own Constitution? Obviously the jurors did. Sami was an outspoken defender of Palestinian rights and they upheld his right to be outspoken.”
David Cole, a Georgetown University law professor who represented Al-Arian’s brother-in-law, said the Justice Department has no grounds to deport Al-Arian. “At the end of the day, you’re trying to deport a permanent resident who has not been convicted of any crime based on his political affiliations alone,” Cole said. “That raises serious constitutional questions.”