TOPICS : When you have to leave US to be free

Nearly three years after the US government failed to convict Palestinian activist and former college professor Sami Al-Arian of any charges in one of the most high-profile terrorism trials following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he continues to be held in federal prison — where, if convicted in an upcoming trial on criminal contempt charges, he faces the prospect of remaining for decades.

Al-Arian has been imprisoned since Feb. 20, 2003, after then-attorney general John Ashcroft declared in a press conference that he and four others were in league with the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, “one of the most violent terrorist organisations in the world.”According to the US government, Al-Arian operated several front groups for the Damascus-based terrorist group during the 1990s, raising money to finance suicide bombings that killed

more than 100 Israelis. At his trial, prosecutors played graphic videos of suicide bombings and invited Israeli citizens to testify about their experiences surviving terrorist attacks — attacks the government suggested were the end result of Al-Arian’s actions.

Prosecutors also showed jurors a 1991 video of a rally where Al-Arian can be seen shouting, “death to Israel and victory to Islam” in Arabic. Al-Arian, a former professor at the University of South Florida, maintains that he has never condoned violence against civilians, but that he does support the right to resist a “brutal military occupation” of Palestinian lands.

Indeed, even the prosecution conceded that — after more than 10 years of tapping the phone conversations of Al-Arian and his family — there was no evidence directly tying him to a single terrorist attack. As a result, in 2005 a Florida jury acquitted Al-Arian of eight charges and remained deadlocked on another nine, with two-thirds of the jury voting for acquittal on all charges.

Yet despite the lack of a single conviction, Al-Arian remains in prison — where supporters say he has often been held in solitary confinement and denied access to his family and legal counsel — for refusing to testify in a trial against a northern Virginia Islamic think tank.

“We don’t even know one day where he’ll be the next, and we don’t know how we’ll be able to visit him,” said Al-Arian’s son, Abdullah, at a recent event here in Washington aimed at raising awareness of the case. “We just want this ordeal to be over.”

But if federal prosecutors have their way, Al-Arian’s ordeal will not be over anytime soon. After accepting a plea bargain in 2006, where he pled guilty to providing some assistance to friends and family “associated” with the Palestinian Islamic Jihad Al-Arian was supposed to be deported to Egypt last year.

At the Washington event, Al-Arian’s son Abdullah said that, at this point, the best his family could hope for is that the government ultimately decides to deport his father. “It’s a sad day when you have to leave America to be free, but that’s the America we live in — for some people at least.” — IPS