Abuse of government power

Woe to anyone who happens to get on the vindictive side of the US justice system. While there is nothing wrong with the government using its resources to capture criminals and prosecute them, the danger is when it decides to persecute ordinary people using the vast resources at its disposal. We have seen how they are very solicitous of the big financial banks and their executives but they can be tireless and ruthless when ordinary people appear in their sights.

A classic case is that of Sami al-Arian, a professor of computer engineering at the University of South Florida. Back in 2008, I linked to an article about his case by the late Alexander Cockburn, where he discussed how al-Arian came into the crosshairs of John Ashcroft’s Justice Department in 2003 at the height of the anti-Muslim hysteria. And thus began his nightmare with the government throwing one charge after another at him, continuing even after Obama became president. Here’s just a small part of the horrors he endured.

Dr al-Arian was charged in a bloated terrorism and conspiracy case and spent two and a half years in prison, in solitary confinement awaiting trial.

In December 2005, a Tampa jury hung 10 to 2 in favor of acquittal on nine charges. In a plea deal, the government dropped eight of them and demanded Al-Arian plead guilty to a watered-down version of one charge. Normally a hung jury with so large a number of the jurors voting for innocence would mean the prosecutors would not demand a retrial. But given the Justice Department’s vindictiveness in this case and that it might insist on just such hugely expensive and protracted proceedings, Al-Arian’s lawyers urged him to accept the offer. Under the plea agreement—which the government betrayed –Dr. Al-Arian pled guilty to one charge of providing nonviolent services to people associated with a designated terrorist organization.

A central aspect of the plea agreement was an understanding that al-Arian would not be subject to further prosecution or called to cooperate with the government on any matter. Al-Arian and his lawyers have insistently maintained that the plea deal with Florida prosecutors protected him from cooperating in any additional cases. The government recommended the shortest possible sentence, no more than time served.

But then, almost certainly after a visit to the local federal prosecutors in Tampa by Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez, the feds double-crossed him on the plea agreement and he was thrown back into prison. The biased judge handed down the maximum sentence, which meant a further eleven months of incarceration before release and deportation slated for April 2007.

The article goes on about how the government kept bringing new charges as the earlier ones fell apart.

His lawyer Jonathan Turley wrote yesterday that the long nightmare has come to an end.

It is with a great sense of relief and thankfulness that I can now report that all charges have been dropped against my client Dr. Sami Al-Arian. Minutes ago, United States District Judge Anthony J. Trenga signed the order dismissing the indictment against Dr. Al-Arian.

This case remains one of the most troubling chapters in this nation’s crackdown after 9-11. Despite the jury verdict and the agreement reached to allow Dr. Al-Arian to leave the country, the Justice Department continued to fight for his incarceration and for a trial in this case. It will remain one of the most disturbing cases of my career in terms of the actions taken by our government.

This family has been put through over a decade of grinding, unrelenting litigation. It is time to bring closure to this matter once for all.

Turley also recounts the long saga of government persecution of al-Arian.

So why was al-Arian treated so badly? Again, here’s Cockburn writing in 2008:

Why the continued efforts to destroy Dr al-Arian? He’s just one more object lesson to the world of what can happen to a Muslim, a Palestinian, who tried with some success to combat ignorance and prejudice in the Middle Eastern debate and who established his innocence to a jury on the grave charges the US government spent millions to sustain in that Florida court. His assailants in the Justice Department have probably anticipated with relish that al-Arian would succumb to malnutrition and illness in one of the holes into which he has been flung. They were mistaken. Sustained by his family, capable attorneys and vast sympathy across the world, Dr al-Arian has stayed in the ring with his fearsome and vindictive persecutors.

The US government will try and break you with torture and abuse, the way they did with Chelsea Manning and Jose Padilla and all the people held in Guantanamo and the whistleblowers who exposed its wrongdoing.

It is wonderful that al-Arian was vindicated. But no one should have to go through what he did and exhaust all his material, physical, and emotional resources and those of his family to establish their innocence. This case is yet another blot on the increasingly tainted Bush and Obama justice departments.


  1. says

    Dr al-Arian was charged in a bloated terrorism and conspiracy case and spent two and a half years in prison, in solitary confinement awaiting trial.

    2 years of torture before a trial?

    In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial

    2 Years? That’s “speedy” eh?

  2. colnago80 says

    Unfortunately, it is difficult to sort out the truth about al-Arian because his supporters are almost entirely made up of Israel bashing left wing extremists like the folks over at Counterpunch while his detractors are almost entirely made up of anti Muslim bigots like Frank Gaffney and Debbie Schlussel.

    As best I can tell, he pleaded guilty to 1 charge in 2006 and agreed to be deported. Apparently, he has been subject to house arrest in DC since that time because of a glitch in the plea agreement as to whether he is required to cooperate with the government and testify before a grand jury. As I understand it, the government has now capitulated and agreed that they screwed up in the original plea agreement and that he is, in fact, not required to testify before a grand jury. It would seem that the time has come to just give him the heave ho, which he agreed to 8 years ago and ship him to whatever country will accept him. It is my understanding that he was born in Kuwait, which has refused to accept him and the PA has also refused to accept him because of his alleged support of Islamic Jihad and his criticism of the Oslo Accords. I doubt that Israel would agree to his entering the Gaza Strip which would, perhaps, be more accommodating.

  3. says

    Unfortunately, it is difficult to sort out the truth about al-Arian

    They should have given him a speedy trial before a jury of his peers and then he’d have either been convicted or acquitted and at least all the evidence would have been presented. That’s, ummmmm…. how it’s supposed to work.

  4. colnago80 says

    Re Marcus Ranum @ #4

    Agreed. However, how many of the delays were due to the government and how many were due to motions raised by his lawyer(s)? Unfortunately, the defense bar has come to the conclusion that delay is in a defendants interest as witnesses may die or become less certain of their testimony as time marches on. Rarely does a defense lawyer yell for a speedy trial for that reason (exception was the O. J. Simpson trial where the defense invoked their right to a speedy trial; turned out to be the correct decision in that case as the prosecution was woefully unprepared and the investigation was full of holes).

  5. sailor1031 says

    This is ridiculous. Don’t they put these plea deals in writing and sign them?

  6. colnago80 says

    Re sailor1031 @ #6

    It was in writing. What they have been fighting over for the last 7 years is whether al-Arian is required to testify before a grand jury. As I understand it, the written agreement is ambiguous on this issue. The bottom line is that the government lawyers screwed up and didn’t make it perfectly clear so that there could be no misunderstanding as to what they wanted al-Arian to do.

    There is also a potential issue as to where he would go. It is my understanding that the Mubarak Government agreed to accept him in 2006 or 2007. Unfortunately for al-Arian, that government is long gone and President Sissi is a lot less enamored with Hamas, with which al_Arian was allegedly associated, then Mubarak was and it is not clear that he would live up to the agreement, which was, apparently, rather tentative.

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