Al-Arian on hunger strike without water

03/07/08 Seán Kinane
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Former University of South Florida professor Sami Al-Arian has been on a hunger strike for five days. He began it after learning on Monday that the government is requiring him to testify before a grand jury in Virginia, a month before he was supposed to be released and deported. Al-Arian family and lawyers say this is just a way for the government to keep him in jail.

In 2005, a Tampa jury found Sami Al-Arian not guilty of eight of the terrorism charges against him. The jury was deadlocked on the nine others, in most cases 10-2 for acquittal. The government promised a retrial and Al-Arian agreed to plead guilty to one charge of nonviolently assisting members of a terrorist organization. He was sentenced to a prison term that should have ended in April of last year. His son, Abdullah Al-Arian, said that this latest subpoena is just a way for the government to detain Sami Al-Arian indefinitely.

Sami Al-Arian has been called before two previous grand juries in Virginia but has refused to testify, saying that to do so would be a violation of his plea agreement with the government. Neither of those grand juries returned any indictments. Because Sami Al-Arian would not testify, he was held in civil contempt of court, extending his time in prison. That contempt charge was lifted in December and Al-Arian began serving time for his sentence again. He was due to be released and deported next month.

WMNF spoke by phone with Sami Al-Arian’s wife, Nahla, who now lives in Egypt.

WMNF attempted to reach Sami Al-Arian’s attorney, Jonathan Turley, but he was unavailable for comment. A statement released by Turley on Monday read, in part, “… As in other cases, the government has given Dr. Al-Arian the choice of an obvious perjury trap or a contempt sanction. It is a choice that is obnoxious to our legal system and contrary to any standard of decency. …”

Nahla Al-Arian suspects that there is a political motivation behind her husband’s continued incarceration.

Gordon Kromberg is an assistant U.S. Attorney in the Eastern District of Virginia; his office declined to comment.

Abdullah Al-Arian agrees with his mother that Kromberg is trying to punish Sami Al-Arian for his political activism.

Nahla Al-Arian said her husband has two choices, neither of which is good. One is to testify, but she agrees with Sami Al-Arian’s attorney that the government is determined to keep him in prison through a perjury trap. Even if Al-Arian testifies truthfully, he could still face perjury charges. His attorney Jonathan Turley told the Tampa Tribune, “If the government wants to charge your client with perjury, it is almost certain to be able to do so by asking enough questions. …”

The other option would be for Sami Al-Arian to continue to refuse to testify. This could lead to criminal contempt charges and a long prison term, his wife Nahla said.

Mel Underbakke is with the Tampa group Friends of Human Rights which is encouraging people to write letters to the Department of Justice and to Congress. Underbakke is also showing a film about Sami Al-Arian to communities around the country.

This is the third time Sami Al-Arian has used a hunger strike to protest his treatment by the government. The first was a 140-day liquid-only hunger strike after his arrest in 2003, during which he was hospitalized and lost 45 pounds. Al-Arian, who is diabetic, also went on a 60-day water only hunger strike in January of last year after he was held in civil contempt for not testifying before the first grand jury. He lost 55 pounds and was hospitalized before his family convinced him to end the strike.

Abdullah Al-Arian visited him this week and said his father has lost 15 pounds.

Full disclosure: this reporter used to be a member of Friends of Human Rights and has advocated for the rights of Sami Al-Arian.

If the government does not give him additional prison time, Al-Arian will be released from prison and deported on April 7.

Learn more:

Jonathan Turley

Free Sami Al-Arian

WRMEA article on Gordon Kromberg

U.S. Attorney’s Office, Eastern District of Virginia

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