There are few prospects in the justice system so grimly awful as when the feds decide never to let go. Rebuffed in their persecutions of some target by juries, or by contrary judges, they shift ground, betray solemn agreements, and dream up new stratagems to exhaust their victims and drive them into bankruptcy, despair, and even suicide. They have all the money and all the time in the world.
Take the appalling vendetta conducted by the Justice Department against Sami al-Arian, a professor from Florida who had the book thrown at him in 2003 by Attorney General John Ashcroft. As I described it back then, al-Arian was charged in a bloated terrorism and conspiracy case and spent two and a half years in prison, in solitary confinement.
In December 2005, despite the efforts of a blatantly biased judge, a Tampa jury hung 10-2 in favor of acquittal on nine charges. The government, as part of the plea deal, dropped eight of them and demanded al-Arian plead guilty to a watered-down version of one charge. Given the vindictive posture of the Department of Justice and the possibility it might insist on a costly retrial, al-Arian's lawyers urged him to accept. So, as part of the plea agreement, which the government betrayed, he pled guilty to one charge of providing nonviolent services to people associated with a designated terrorist organization. A central aspect of the plea agreement was an understanding that al-Arian would not be subject to further prosecution or called to cooperate with the government on any matter. The plea agreement, signed with Florida prosecutors, explicitly protected him from cooperating in any additional cases. The government recommended the shortest possible sentence, no more than time served.
But then, almost certainly after a visit to the local federal prosecutors in Tampa by Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez, the feds double-crossed him on the plea agreement, and he was thrown back into prison. The biased judge handed down the maximum sentence, which meant a further 11 months of incarceration before release, and deportation, slated for April 2007. Al-Arian passed into the malign orbit of prosecutors in Virginia, notably assistant federal prosecutor Gordon Kromberg. The DOJ's plan now was to set up al-Arian in a perjury trap, compelling him to testify before a grand jury investigating an Islamic think tank called the International Institute of Islamic Thought in a case that is completely unrelated to his. The institute has been the target of a six-year witch-hunt by Kromberg.
On Nov. 16, 2006, dragged up to Virginia, al-Arian was brought before the grand jury and placed in civil contempt for refusing to testify because the actual intend of the subpoena is the attempt to trap him. When the grand jury's term expired, Kromberg promptly empanelled a new one. Al-Arian continued to decline to testify and was once more held in contempt. Shunted between prisons in Atlanta, Petersburg and Alexandria, al-Arian endured hunger strikes and maltreatment from guards.
Even with the additional time served, al-Arian's sentence ended on April 7 of this year. He was then taken into the custody of immigration authorities who were making preparations for his deportation. On June 26, the DOJ elected to plunge al-Arian and his family into fresh torments, thus prolonging the slow moving auto da fe of the past five years. A new federal indictment charges a-Arian with two counts of criminal contempt, relating to the efforts by Virginia prosecutors to bring him before a grand jury investigating other Muslim organizations.
"This indictment proves that the government was never interested in any information that Dr. al-Arian has on the IIIT matter," said his attorney, Professor Jonathan Turley, who has represented al-Arian since May 2007. "They have indicted him despite the fact that the prosecutors admitted that he is a minor witness in the IIIT investigation and he has already given two detailed statements under oath to the government and offered to take a polygraph examination to prove that he has given true information about his knowledge of IIIT."
On June 30, al-Arian was arraigned before Judge Leonie Brinkema for the Eastern District of Columbia. The court entered a not-guilty plea and scheduled a trial to begin on Aug. 13.
His assailants in the Justice Department have probably anticipated with relish that al-Arian would succumb to malnutrition and illness in one of the holes into which he has been flung. They were mistaken. Sustained by his family, capable attorneys and vast sympathy across the world, al-Arian has stayed in the ring with his fearsome and vindictive persecutors. Every word of support and encouragement is important. You can write to [email protected]