Last Friday a federal judge in Virginia dropped all charges against former University of South Florida Professor Sami Al-Arian; could it signal the end of a marathon legal battle that began in Tampa more than a decade ago?
To find out, WMNF spoke Wednesday with Al-Arian’s former attorney, Linda Moreno, who is based in Tampa.
Linda Moreno is also affiliated with Doughty Street Chambers in London, a firm specializing in human rights and international law.
"Well, I’m very happy that at long-last, after 11 years of a struggle; a 6-month jury trial; years of litigation; decades of pervasive, inflammatory, negative press and accusations against Dr. Al-Arian, that the government has done the right thing and moved to dismiss the case and a judge granted the order. So there’s joy, there’s jubilation — but there’s also concern about next steps."
Before we see what the next steps are, let’s go back to 11 years ago. Remind our listeners, then about what happened 11 years ago about the trial that happened in Tampa.
"Well, in 2003 Dr. Al-Arian was arrested and charged in a 53-count indictment that alleged wide-ranging international conspiracies: conspiracy to murder nationals abroad and of course material support of terrorism. This was as a result, as I mentioned, of decades of pervasive negative press and allegations about him. The case really was the seminal test of the PATRIOT Act, because the indictment came down less than two years after 9/11 and it was one of the first cases that went to trial, actually.
"The allegations were that Dr. Al-Arian supported the terrorist organization of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. And our position was that Dr. Al-Arian was engaged in the noblest traditions of speech in this country. Political speech. Speech that powerful people found offensive. And those powerful people had a very specific point of view which was the pro-Zionist, anti-Palestinian point of view. There were many forces brought to bear on Dr. Al-Arian’s case – political forces.
"After two years of litigation, we went to trial. It was a six-month jury trial. The government presented dozens and dozens of witnesses, flew people over from Israel to testify against Dr. Al-Arian. And the jury was out, I believe, a couple of weeks. They could not, would not, convict Dr. Al-Arian of a single count. They acquitted him of eight charges and they hung – 10 for acquittal, two for conviction – on the remaining nine charges. What that meant was that the government – and they so told us in no uncertain terms – that they could retry Dr. Al-Arian on those remaining nine charges.
"I think that the emotional, psychological and spiritual burden of going through another process like this was too much to bear for the family and for Dr. Al-Arian. At the end of the day, we – Bill Moffitt, my brilliant colleague, who is now deceased, and I – negotiated a plea for Dr. Al-Arian to one charge where he admitted providing services to a relative who was associated with Islamic Jihad.
"In the negotiation process, which took five months, between the defense and the government, to specify exactly what words were going to be used in the plea and also what all the understandings were between both parties, it was abundantly clear: although the government wanted Dr. Al-Arian to cooperate that he would never do that. That could never be a part of a plea and he was ready to go to trial again. At the end of the day we negotiated this plea, which meant it ended all business with the federal government. Sami [Al-Arian] got 57 months as a sentence and also a deportation order. This occurred in May of 2006.
"Within several weeks Sami was hit with a grand jury subpoena in a different part of the country, the Eastern District of Virginia. This of course was pretty astonishing, given we had just negotiated the terms of the agreement. And Dr. Al-Arian fought that subpoena; he refused to testify, he protested, he went on hunger strikes. The government immunized him to try to force him to testify in an investigation they were conducting in Virginia. At the end of the day he refused to do it saying it was a violation of the plea agreement and the government there indicted him on criminal contempt charges.
"As a result of that case, he has been in limbo, really since 2006. Obviously he needed counsel on that criminal case. It was very hard for me to let that case go. I had to because I was potentially a witness in the inevitable trial that would occur. I’m very grateful – as I know the family is – to Professor [Jonathan] Turley, who took on the representation through the contempt proceeding. Many motions were filed. At the end of the day, Professor Turley filed a motion to dismiss the indictment which sat on Judge Leonie Brinkema’s desk for five long years.
"What happened a few days ago was that the government moved – finally, at long last – to dismiss that criminal contempt indictment. To finally allow Sami not to be wearing an ankle monitor any more or confined to his home or at any moment brought to prison. So there are no charges pending against him at all. However it does open him up to deportation, which is as a result and consequence of the plea agreement back in 2006."
And you were referring earlier to Professor Turley and that is Jonathan Turley, from Georgetown University, who is now Dr. Al-Arian’s current attorney.
What do you think will happen? Do you think the government will move to deport him? Is the family getting ready for deportation? When might that happen? Where will they go?
"I don’t think anyone knows when that might happen and we are trying to shape where he might go. Clearly in 2014, Egypt is a different place than it was in 2006. And I don’t think that any reasonable person would think that Egypt would be a safe and good place for Dr. Al-Arian to be deported to. I understand he now has immigration counsel who is an excellent, excellent lawyer, who will be fashioning and engaging in those discussions with the government. What’s most important of priority is Dr. Al-Arian’s safety.
"You ask ‘are they getting ready?’ From the moment I met Sami Al-Arian and [his wife] Nahla and the children, they’ve been ready for the unknown. It’s an unusual state of being for a family to have lived in for nearly a dozen years. So I believe that they’re preparing spiritually, smartly on what the options are. And I have faith that they’ll get through this.
"Certainly I know that Dr. Al-Arian and his family so very grateful for the support – the real support – that they have received over the last decade, in terms of emails, outpourings of community support and they are deeply, deeply appreciative of this. I would just ask the listeners to go be witnesses in these trials, find out for yourselves what the government is doing in your names, make smart choices at the electoral ballot box.
"And yes, the First Amendment is alive. One would have you believe that it is just in the form of a corporation, that corporations can exercise free speech. It still is the little guy that has the right to free speech.
This case is similar to a lot of other cases, and it’s different of course. But it kind of was a pioneering case, as you mentioned earlier, with the PATRIOT Act. What do you see as the future of this kind of prosecution?
"I’m glad you asked that because in my view this case stands as a victory for free speech. At the end of the day what Dr. Al-Arian was doing: he was a powerful and effective advocate for the Palestinians. And that was and remains a very unpopular view. Our defense at the trial, where we called no witnesses, was that Dr. Al-Arian was exercising his rights under the First Amendment. Political speech, maybe unpopular political speech, but speech nonetheless. And nothing the government has done and can do would tarnish the victory of that defense in this case.
"It gives me hope as a lawyer as I travel around the country and internationally in defending folks who find themselves in similar situations. Many times you would think that the government might have learned something. These are political prosecutions in many ways – not all, not all – but many of them are. This is a strong precedent that we can keep looking to. And the jurors do not want to be dragged into a criminal court to cast ballots. They want to – as their duty, their sworn duty – to decide whether a crime was committed and this person committed it. And the way I read the Constitution, even if the First Amendment is on life support, it’s still alive.