Palestinian activist ends prison hunger strike

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WASHINGTON — Dr. Sami Al-Arian, a Palestinian activist, ended his 60-day hunger strike at a federal prison hospital in North Carolina March 24, bowing to his children’s pleas that he not risk death protesting his unjust imprisonment.

His wife, Nahla, and daughter, Laila, were at his side during a prison news conference when he announced an end to the water-only fast. He lost 54 pounds, or 25 percent of his body weight, during the two-month ordeal.

Mahdi Bray, executive director of the MAS Freedom Foundation, told the news conference, “Dr. Al-Arian was never convicted by a jury of his peers of any wrongdoing or crime. It is time that our government respects the jury’s verdict and release him. The sacrifice that Dr. Al-Arian and his family have made in the cause of justice compels us to work more intensely for his unconditional release so that he can be reunited with his family.”

In a telephone interview, Nahla Al-Arian told the World, “We visited him in the prison hospital and insisted he stop the hunger strike because he had reached a very critical, dangerous phase of the fast.”

She said the younger children, ages 13 and 16, “were horrified when they saw their father. They told him they needed his love. They needed him alive. We convinced him that everyone knows about his situation. He received messages of support from everywhere in the world as well as from across the U.S.”

Al-Arian, a former computer science professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa, began the fast at a county jail in Virginia to protest Justice Department efforts to force him to testify before a grand jury. He argued that it violated an agreement in which he pleaded no contest to charges he had assisted a Palestinian group, Islamic Jihad, and the government agreed to release him and deport him on April 13, 2007.

When he refused to testify, Federal Judge Gerald Lee sentenced him to 18 months for contempt. Al-Arian was recently transferred to the federal prison hospital when he fainted from weakness in the Virginia jail.

Nahla Al-Arian said a 12-member jury refused in December 2005 to convict Al-Arian of any of the 51 charges leveled by then-Attorney General John Ashcroft. The sensational case was a centerpiece of the Bush administration’s hysteria-mongering “war on terror.”

The Tampa jurors found Al-Arian innocent of eight criminal charges, including belonging to a “front group” funneling financial contributions to “terrorists” in Palestine. But two jurors refused to join the majority in acquitting Al-Arian and three co-defendants on nine lesser charges. Judge Lee then “aborted the jury’s deliberations.” Ever since, the Bush Justice Department has flagrantly violated the “innocent until proven guilty” rule by holding Al-Arian in prison.

Nahla Al-Arian, a U.S. citizen, has waged a determined struggle to win her husband’s freedom. “I could not have held up without the support of my fellow Americans,” she said. “The people have given us support throughout, rallied for us, written to the Justice Department and their congressmen. I am so grateful for all they have done.”

There is misunderstanding about the plea agreement, she said. “Look at the ‘Statement of Facts’ in that plea. There was no crime committed. They exploited the climate of fear to silence political activists and to prevent them from exercising their political rights, freedom of association, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly. The government targeted Palestinian activists who need those rights more than anyone else in the world.”

Nahla Al-Arian said she is resigned to going into exile with her husband and two younger children when her husband is freed. Her three older children, two in graduate school and the third a journalist, would remain in the U.S.

The next step, she said, is to convince Judge Lee to lift the 18-month contempt sentence. “Sami and his lawyers will tell the judge that Sami is not going to change his mind. Ordering him to testify is contrary to the plea agreement we signed last year.”

She concluded, “People who want to help us win justice can go to our web site freesamialarian.com. You can read about our case and look for what you can do to help.”

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