After holding Palestinian American Sami Al-Arian in prison for more than two years, the U.S. government began its trial against him June 6 on charges including racketeering, conspiracy and providing material support to terrorists. Al-Arian maintains his innocence and contends the government is seeking to punish him for his political views and pursuit of Arab rights. Al-Arian was a computer science professor at the University of South Florida before being fired in the wake of his arrest.

Prosecutors allege Al-Arian was a key fundraiser for Palestinian Islamic Jihad, labeled by the State Department as a terrorist organization in the late 1990s. However, a significant portion of the indictment stressed Al-Arian’s efforts to raise money for the organization before it was placed on the list. Interestingly, Al-Arian was a major fundraiser and supporter of the George W. Bush 2000 election campaign.

The strange trial of Dr. Sami Al-Arian continues with the ongoing “Reader’s Theater,” as role-playing prosecutors read translations of wiretapped telephone conversations from 1994. They take on the voices of the various characters and dramatize the evidence, probably hoping this will keep the jury awake!

Much of the past two weeks of testimony by the lead FBI agent has exhibited what can only be seen as a blatant mischaracterization of Arab and Muslim cultural norms and practices, leading many courtroom observers to conclude that racism is behind much of this prosecution.

Prosecutors have repeatedly attempted to confuse jurors by alluding to common Arabic names and terms of respect as “aliases.” Though Arabic translators have previously testified that calling someone by the name of their firstborn child is a deeply rooted practice in Arab culture, the government has implied that use of such names by the men in this case is an attempt to conceal their true identities.

Also, in one instance, prosecutors attempted to show that one person mentioned by last name only, “Hassanein,” in a 1994 telephone conversation was the same person mentioned in another conversation eight years later, in 2002, by two completely different people. One cannot help but conclude that if the name in question was a common English name such as “Smith,” the connection would be deemed laughable by anyone present.

Throughout the past two weeks, the FBI agent who has been on this case for 10 years was asked to explain particular words in the course of the conversations that he claims are “code.” He ignored the fact that most of the terms referenced were common slang known in many parts of the Arab world, and not something exclusive to the conversants. The term “rabbit,” for example, is used to refer to a sum of money and is common Egyptian slang. He also did not seem to be aware that the word “family” is frequently used among Palestinians (and almost everyone else, as well!) to refer to immediate and distant relatives. The question on many people’s minds has been, if the defendants in the case were African American, would a federal agent have dared to insinuate that their common terms were in fact “code” without being labeled a racist?

Ultimately, most people who have been bored by the prosecution’s case have reached the conclusion that this case is much ado about nothing. In the dramatization that I witnessed one day, about an hour and a half was spent on one conversation. The topic? How to help financially struggling students with employment.

During the week, Judge James Moody was heard to remark, “At this rate, I may not live long enough to finish this trial.” He sarcastically announced a search for a replacement judge.

The government has introduced numerous books, journals, and documents (including a copy of the U.S. Constitution seized from Dr. Al-Arian’s home) as evidence in the case. Judge Moody frequently has instructed the jury that possession of this or that particular document is not illegal. He also instructed the jury that the Palestinian Islamic Jihad had not been designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. government until 1995.

Thus, it appears that that the government has spent two months and a lot of our tax dollars to prove that Dr. Al-Arian has done a lot of perfectly legal things.

Melva Underbakke ( is a
Florida writer and activist.