This comes about a year after former USF professor Sami Al-Arian was supposed to be released from prison.
Nearly a year after signing a plea agreement and following a failed appeal, former USF professor Sami Al-Arian will soon head back to the courtroom.
As part of a renewed effort to end his current imprisonment, Al-Arian has submitted legal filings to three separate courts, including one to the U.S. Supreme Court concerning the constitutionality of his original sentence.
According to Al-Arian’s attorney, C. Peter Erlinder, when U.S. District Court Judge James S. Moody sentenced Al-Arian he cited the charges on which Al-Arian had been acquitted as the basis for such a harsh penalty.
“Exceptions to the normal operation of law have been common in this case,” Erlinder said.
Al Arian’s saga began shortly after a September 2001 appearance on the FOX TV show, The O’Reilly Factor, and culminated in his Feb. 2002 arrest. After a six-month trial during which theprosecution called 80 witnesses, Al-Arian’s defense rested without calling a single person to the stand. He was acquitted on eight charges while the jury hung on the remaining nine.
In May 2006, Al-Arian struck a plea deal, which, according to Erlinder, included a non-cooperation clause designed to keep Al-Arian from being forced to testify before a grand jury. According to Erlinder, federalprosecutor Terry Zitek has admitted on the record that such an agreement was made, while the U.S. Attorney’s office hasn’t denied its existence. The lack of an open denial, he said, makes such an agreement binding.
However, it is this section of the plea agreement that has become a major point of contention, as Al-Arian is being held in contempt of court for his refusal to testify in federal court. “It is the atmosphere of our country that led to this, judges who are political appointees and activist judges,” said Nahla Al-Arian, Sami’s wife. “The federal prosecutor doesn’t care about evidence, doesn’t care about justice. He wants to incite the judge against my husband.”
Al-Arian can be held up to 18 months for civil contempt of court, but according to Erlinder, a judge can dismiss a contempt charge as soon as it has become evident that the person in question will not testify.
“The purpose of a contempt charge is to give an incentive to testify,” Erlinder said. “It is not a criminal charge; the judge can change his mind at any time.”
Al-Arian and his legal team have petitioned both the Fourth and Eleventh U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeals in an attempt to have the contempt charges lifted, Erlinder said.
Al-Arian has spent nearly 90 days serving time for contempt of court, none of which will count toward the original sentence imposed by Moody. This means that even after the contempt charges are dropped, Al-Arian will be forced to serve nearly 90 additional days.
Support for the family
This Friday marks the day Al-Arian was originally slated to for release. In support of his cause, the Muslim American Society Freedom Foundation (MASFF) will hold a rally in front of the Justice Department in Washington, D.C.
According to MASFF Executive Director Mahdi Bray, the demonstration will be a prayer service, press conference and rally combined with the goal of raising awareness about Al-Arian’s situation, as well as showing support for him and his family.
Al-Arian recently suspended a 60-day hunger strike in protest of his continued incarceration, during which he lost 55 pounds. The effects of the weight loss confined him to a wheelchair.
The ordeal was particularly hard on his family, but according to Nahla, Sami is eating solid foods again and has gained a little weight.
“Thank God, he is eating food again,” she said. “We’re all happy he’s eating, especially the younger kids. We still want him to take care of himself.”
According to Bray, the best thing to do is let Al-Arian leave the country with his family.
“If you go fishing, eventually it is time to cut bait and go,” he said. “They’ve been fishing, now they need to cut bait and let Sami go.”