November 21, 2014, marked the seventh year of the imprisonment of Northern Virginia resident and Islamic activist Dr Abdelhaleem Ashqar. His charge was ‘one count of obstruction of the administration of justice and one count of criminal contempt for his refusal to collaborate with federal grand juries, investigating the Palestinian anti-occupation movement’ as well as other American Muslim organizations. In 2007, Judge Amy St. Eve sentenced Dr. Ashqar to 135 months in prison, more than 11 years.
Dr. Ashqar, a former professor at Howard University, was an outspoken political opponent of the Israeli occupation from 1986 to 1990, and his his activism and writing against the regime made him a target. He was often detained and tortured for his activism. The Ashqars' ordeal as a couple started when the Islamic University of Gaza, where he was a lecturer and director of public relations, was closed after the First Intifada.
He received a scholarship from the University of Mississippi to complete his PhD, but was not allowed by the Israeli government to travel until the next year. “I came to the United States in 1990,” explained his wife Asmaa. “After the First Intifada, it was very unsafe in Palestine. No one could move in [Gaza]. When he got the scholarship to continue his PhD, we thought it was a good opportunity. We dreamed of a free United States. We had heard of freedom of speech and democracy— how you can go there and have liberty.” The couple thought that they could live in the United States and show the world the plight of the Palestinians.
Asmaa hadn’t slept for months from the bombing in Gaza. “I felt so safe when I came here, but that didn't last for a long time. We believed in freedom of speech, but there is no freedom of speech,” she says.
Ashqar’s wife said that upon the request of Israeli authorities, the FBI and the US Attorney General’s office in Mississippi offered her husband citizenship in exchange for testimony against HAMAS, Dar Al Hijrah, Muslim American Society (MAS), CAIR, and the Holy Land Foundation. “They were very clear [with] what they wanted him to say. They wanted to build cases against those organizations and some members to the Muslim community.”
Asmaa says Dr Ashqar refused, saying it is against his religion and his community, leading to threats from the authorities. His PhD was delayed for seven years as the FBI supposedly had a discussion with his thesis supervisor. It wasn’t until his advisor passed away that Dr Ashqar was granted his PhD, says Asmaa.
Stanley Cohen, one of Ashqar's lawyers, documented "that Dr. Ashqar has been the victim of government harassment, intimidation and illegal surveillance for more than a decade."
“He could either join with his oppressors, reject his countrymen, forsake everything he believes, and never return to his beloved Palestine, or he could be labeled a terrorist,” notes his appeal to his sentencing memorandum.
Federal prosecutors kept trying to charge him with terrorism crimes, but without any evidence those charges did not stick. The jury did not find that Dr. Ashqar obstructed the investigation of a federal crime of terrorism, nor did the grand jury find that Dr. Ashqar actually obstructed justice.
In 2004, under then US Attorney General Ashcroft, Dr. Ashqar was arrested and charged with criminal contempt and obstruction of justice, giving him a sentence of 11 years and three months. The maximum sentence for this crime is usually 40 months. “The judge said to my husband at his hearing that I want your community to take a lesson from you and not take you for a role model—collaborate with the government,” says Asmaa.
Dr Ashqar has spent three years under house arrest and seven years in jail for the Palestinian cause, enduring one of the longest hunger strikes in American history. He faces immediate deportation upon his release and cannot go back to his homeland because of the occupation.
“We lost all the appeals, yet they [still say] talk to us and you will be released right now,” says Asmaa. She was going to visit Dr Ashqar so The Muslim Link asked her to ask Dr Ashqar if he would do it again. She didn’t hesitate. “He will do it again and he will live for his principles, for the sake of Allah. He told me many times, after they jailed him all the members all the community abandoned him. They said they have nothing to do with him. He didn’t do it for them, [it was for] the sake of Allah, for what he believes in. That is what makes me keep believing.”
“He thinks about standing in front of his Lord; he is really strong and I am proud to be the wife of this man. I walk with my head held high.”
It is an American tradition to fight for beliefs and to be jailed for them, and this road is not easy. “Dr Ashqar’s refusals to testify before investigative grand juries about his work and relationships with other Palestinians — in effect to become an informer against his people and his liberation movement — was part of a long history of resistance by activists in this country to “naming names” of political associates before government investigative bodies,” writes Ashqar’s attorney Michael E. Deutsch in the Electronic Intifada. “The District Court, ignoring the fact that Dr. Ashqar was acquitted of a terrorism conspiracy, his long history of service to his people documented in hundreds of letters and the history of non-collaboration and civil disobedience vis-a-vis grand jury inquisitions, sentenced him to more time in prison than if he had committed a violent felony.”
Before his sentencing Dr Ashqar had this to say to the Muslim Link readers: “I think it’s a political case. It’s a continuation of the government’s efforts to outlaw any activities [on behalf of the Palestinian], to try to make something out of nothing. And I think that what happened today is evidence of what they have been doing all over - to create something from nothing; to make it appear that we are doing something illegal, while we are not; to outlaw any work to support our Muslim causes all over the world, and shortly it might be any Islamic work, if Muslims don’t work together and support the legal proceedings of this case and other cases.”
In his latest message to Muslim Link readers, he says: “I didn't do it for special people, I did it for Allah. Any minute and second we can die and I want to be remembered as a man of dignity and honor, not as a traitor. The message to the community is to stand up and wake up. The Muslim community will become weakened, hiding is not going to protect you. Standing up for each other will protect you. I hope they will wake up. Our problem is the leaders in our communities. If our leaders are scared how do we expect the others to react?”
His release date is June 13, 2017. Asmaa hopes that he will be released before then. “Everything is in Allah's hand. They will deport him the minute they release him- we can't go back home. For 24 years, I haven't seen my country and my family,” comments Asmaa, brushing off hopelessness. “We pray that we will find a country that will accept him. It is hard as a Palestinian; we hope Allah will eases his life after that. We pray that Muslim countries will be safe and have the freedom that they are seeking. Please keep him in your duas,” says Asmaa.
Dr Ashqar lives for his principles. He takes his cues from the great American heroes who used civil disobedience in support of their people. He often finds his words in the words of Martin Luther King, like in this quote from the civil rights leader: “I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.