Sami al-Arian awaits his trial. After seven years of injustice and violation of his rights now he is waiting to hear if the plea agreement he signed with the government upholds or not.
Al-Arian came to the United States for his undergraduate studies at seventeen. Originally from Palestine he was raised in Egypt and was among the hundreds of thousands of stateless Palestinians. He completed his PhD in Computer Engineering. He was always well aware of his Palestinian identity and heritage. Seeing how biased the American media was during the first Intifada he felt that he had to give the American people a different perspective. He wanted to display America’s role and its support to Israel; giving billions of dollars each year and supporting its military. In the late eighties and nineties he organized rallies, conferences, published newsletters and magazines about the conflict. Everything he did was out in the open. Although there was no evidence he was imprisoned after 9/11 as one of the scapegoats the government offered the American public to show they were fighting “terrorism”.
We spoke with Laila al-Arian about her fathers case and about her new book Collateral Damage.
Laila, tell me how it all started
My father was an activist. He wanted to give the American people a different perspective on the Palestinian issue. So, he would organize rallies, write articles and regularly give speeches on the Palestinian issue. During the late eighties and early nineties he made some enemies from the pro-Israeli lobby and the right wing, hawkish supporters of Israel. Especially Steven Emerson, a very well known islamophobe, and according to some, an agent of Israel, made it his cause to attack al-Arian. Eventually the FBI began investigating; they wire trapped our phones for more than ten years. It was a very stressful and miserable life.
Did you know FBI was investigating your father?
Our house was raided in 1995 by the FBI. I was 13 at the time. It was very traumatizing. They took personal things that had nothing to do with my father. They took things like my doodling I did as a child, my report cards, home videos, everything. You feel like your privacy is being invaded. But, after September 11, the Bush administration wanted to show that they were fighting “terrorism” and they wanted to have different cases to sell to the American public showing that they were doing something. My father was one of the scapegoats and he was arrested in February 2003 on charges of supporting a Palestinian terrorist group. He was held under the most atrocious, inhumane conditions imaginable. He was held in solitary confinement for twenty three, twenty four hours a day. At one point he was denied phone calls for six months from his family. We were not allowed contact visits. Even though convicted felons had contact visits we had to visit my father behind thick glass. This was still pre-trial, there was no conviction. I think the reason they did that was to enforce some sort of psychological torture on him before his trial. They try to break you down before trial so that you cannot assist in your own defense.
Was he able to cope?
Despite all of this, alhamdulillah his faith remained very strong and it helped him get through it all. One thing that was difficult that, when he was at the special housing unit, which is solitary confinement, he didn’t have any watches or clocks or a window. So he never knew when the prayer times were.
Wasn’t there a trial?
Yes but it was two and a half years after he was arrested. During this trial, the prosecutors invested millions of dollars in this case. They brought in dozens of witnesses from Israel. They flew them in to testify. And what were they testifying about? Things that had nothing to do with my father! Attacks that happen, bus bombings. The prosecutors tried to inflame the jury, they tried to have them judge according to their emotions instead of the facts. They would also bring in websites that none of the defendants accessed. Just random websites.
Was he the only one arrested at this time?
No! When my father was arrested, three other Palestinian men were also arrested so the government can say that there was a conspiracy going on to support Palestinians overseas.
How long was the trial?
It was a six months trial which was extremely long, very expensive. We had to raise a million dollars for our lawyers because we wanted to hire the best lawyers who could really do a good job and defend us.
What was put forth as evidence?
Much of the governments evidence were articles my father wrote, the speeches he gave, phone conversations, everything that are supposed to be protected by the first amendment! American’s say you are entitled to free speech, to free association, etc. but everything the prosecutors introduced was covered by the first amendment.
And your defense?
When the time came for us to give our defense our lawyer came up and said “on behalf of Sami al Arian we give no defense, we rest our case.” Basically we didn’t bring any witnesses and it was a strong statement to the jury that all of this is allowed, where is the crime here? It was a very risky strategy but we just new, if you answered each charge you are giving them credence that these charges are actually valid.
Did this strategy prove to be useful?
I think so! After thirteen days of deliberations the jury came back and they completely acquitted two of the defendants and the other two, they largely said not guilty and they were undecided on two of the charges. That’s because two of the female jurors to just refused to fully acquit. Whenever the other jurors would ask them they would say it’s our feeling, they wouldn’t give any other reason. These two were my father and another Palestinian.
What did this mean for your father?
Unfortunately, because he was not fully acquitted the government could then retry him on the remaining charges. We decided we had been through enough. The judge very biased. We knew for sure that he would try his best if there was another trial to insure a conviction.
My father ended up signing up a plea agreement to one very watered down charge and saying “I agree to be deported from the country but I just want everything to be over with”. They agreed and they signed a plea agreement. My father is not a citizen so it is very easy for the government to deport you. Because of his activism they wouldn’t give him citizenship.
What happened after he signed the plea agreement?
A prosecutor who is very vindictive in Virginia brought my father up there. He is very anti Muslim. He makes racist comments on the record, in the open. For instance, in 2006, it was September and it was Ramadan time. Our lawyers told this prosecutor that he did not need my father to testify for another month, and to let him spend Ramadan with his family in Florida. The Judge said “If Muslims can kill each other during Ramadan they can testify before a grand jury.”
He tried to force (my father) to testify in a case of the IIIT (International Institute of Islamic Thought) which was another fishing expedition. There is nothing against triple IIIT, it is a very well respected think tank. So, my father told them he had nothing to tell and besides it is against his plea agreement to testify. Then he was held further in jail for eighteen months under civil contempt.
So, what will happen now?
The judge in the case is waiting to rule whether there should be a charge on civil criminal contempt for not testifying or if she will drop the charges and have him deported. That is where we are now.
What are the best and worst case scenarios?
Worst case scenario is she says, actually there will be a trial and god forbid he gets convicted. After 9/11 they passed this law called Terrorism Enhancement. If you are caught speeding or whatever, they say this was done in furtherance of terrorism, your sentence that could normally be two months, three months, nine months could go up to twenty years, thirty years.
Best case scenario is she comes back and says “I’m dropping these charges because the government violated their end of the plea agreement”. Then he will be deported.
Where will he go?
We have to find him a country because he is a stateless Palestinian. It is unbelievable to think that in the twenty first century there are people who literally have no place to go.
Were you harassed?
No, alhamdulillah. For the most part we weren’t. Most people were very supportive.
Do you get picked up at airports?
No, alhamdulillah! But we think that we are still being monitored.
Was it your father’s case made you go into media?
No, it was actually Palestine. As a child to watch or read the American media cover Palestine you would think it’s the Palestinians who were occupying Israel. I mean, night is day and day is night. I believed the only way to change this was to be in the media and to have a voice. But definitely my father’s case pushed me further because I really know the importance of being able to advocate and tell a story objectively.
Lets talk about your book Collateral Damage. What made you write this book?
I was interning at the Nation magazine after graduate school, a leftist weekly magazine in New York. It has a very nice history about being against slavery. It is one of the oldest magazines in the US. I was encouraged to work with Chris Hedges who is my co-author. He is a veteran war correspondent. We both interviewed a large number of veterans who had served in Iraq. We wanted to know that how so many Iraqi civilians were killed. Because we heard estimates of one million people so we wanted to know what was happening on the ground. We thought the best way to do that was to interview those who returned from the war and give us an objective perspective.
Weren’t the veterans afraid of talking about what went on?
They weren’t afraid anymore. They are not on the battle field and they can think very clearly about their experiences. A lot of them were really conscientious. It is not easy to tell these stories, but they told us these gruesome stories; civilians being run over by cars, being shot, racist things the commanders would say to justify this kind of treatment, etc, etc, etc.
Weren’t they worried that the American government or the army would react?
I think there is always that concern but that also backfires for the army to really punish these guys because then it looks like they are punishing their own. I think for the most part nothing has happened to them.
Did anyone of them think that this was justifiable?
Just a few. The vast majority who decided to talk to us were very regretful of their actions. A lot of them would cry during the interview. One of them said to me “whenever I do interviews with Muslim journalists I feel really guilty” One guy told me “sorry”, he was apologizing so much. I was like I am not the person who you should apologize from…
How was the reaction to the book?
Unfortunately in the US media there was almost no reaction. They just ignored it. This is because it is a narrative the US media doesn’t want to talk about. The foreign media was excellent. The Irish media did a whole segment on it. We had the BBC, BBC World, etc.
How are the sales?
They weren’t too bad for a book. My co-author went on C-Span one day and that really boosted the sales. It goes to show that if the American people were exposed to these kind of stories they would be interested but the problem is that the media doesn’t give it any time..
We just hope that it is a book that you can pick up in ten years and it will still be relevant about what happened during the Iraq war.
What do you think Muslims can do?
I think the most important thing for Muslims to remain very informed. Not just about Iraq but about Afghanistan and all other wars and operations that are going on. There are drone attacks in Pakistan where civilians are being killed. So keep themselves informed, involved, writing letters, having discussions, being active. But also being constructive because sometimes people have their emotions stirred and they don’t actually direct them in the most constructive way.
I think knowledge is power.
What do you think about the attitude of the Arab world in general? Most of them seem to support the Iraq war
I think it’s more the governments that support it. I think the people are very much against the war. But, unfortunately the leaders tend to just look out for their own interest and how specifically the US will serve their interest. And it’s to the US’s own self harm, own detriment that they are supporting despotic leaders because that’s how you anger populations. And populations see leaders who are abusing their power, who are despotic and treat their own people very badly and the US is supporting them.
Are you thinking about doing books on Pakistan or Afghanistan? Because when you say Collateral Damage it all comes into it.
Yes, inshallah. Specifically Afghanistan, because of the new increase in the hundred and thirty thousand troops so it is very relevant to interview many veterans because they are coming back with very horrifying stories and I think people need to know. Inshallah.
What did your father think about it?
He was very proud. He always taught us to be always politically active and involved so he was very proud.
We will be waiting for many books from you Laila. Thank you for your time.