For most students at USF, the Sami Al-Arian saga came to an end when the engineering professor with alleged ties to terrorism was arrested in February. What most do not know is that the trial he is facing may very well touch on and re-evaluate the most basic rights American citizens have.
At a news conference in Ybor City Friday, Al-Arian’s new lawyer William B. Moffitt addressed the media in a small, crammed law firm office. He described the case of Al-Arian as one of the first “civil rights cases of the 21st century” while reporters crouched around him.
Moffitt spoke of the conditions Al-Arian is currently being held in as well as how Al-Arian was moved to the Coleman Federal Correctional Complex in Sumter County where he is now housed in what is called a Special Housing Unit (SHU). These units were designed to “punish people that have committed offenses while in prison” and are meant to house “the worst of the worst.”
He went on to say that Al-Arian had to change plans to defend himself mainly because he could not get access to sources such as law books or even talk with his attorney Robert McKee. Even now, Al-Arian has to have every phone call approved by the Bureau of Prisons in Atlanta, something no other detainee awaiting trial has to do, Moffitt claimed.
This is troubling news. According to the Bill of Rights, every person standing trial in the United States must have the chance for a fair trial. How can Al-Arian have a fair trial if he cannot even call his lawyer, let alone see him?
As Moffitt put it, it appears as if authorities have decided to start punishing Al-Arian even though he has not yet been convicted.
But how can somebody be held in a high security prison when the concept of “innocent until proven guilty” should apply to him?
It appears that the post 9/11 scare has caused some amendments in the Bill of Rights to be simply thrown out when convenient. This is what led to Al-Arian’s trial start date to be set for January 2005 (let’s assume for now that it is a mere coincidence that this date is after the next presidential election), although Amendment VI of the Bill of Rights calls for the “right to a speedy and public trial.” Speedy, in this case, seems to be relative.
The same apparently goes for Al-Arian’s right to “have the assistance of counsel for his defense,” which he might technically have, although it is heavily hampered by the beurocratic hoops his defending lawyer has to jump through in order to see him.
Do we, as a society, want these liberties taken away? For now we should assume that Al-Arian, just as any other person standing trial in the United States, is innocent until evidence brought forth against him proves otherwise.
If, on the one hand, he is guilty, the trial should show this. And if the trial was to show that he is innocent, after having spent two years of his life in an SHU in what Amnesty International has deemed “inhumane conditions” and was treated as if he were guilty, no justice will be served.
It is understandable that the U.S. government wants to show the public that its is actively doing something in its fight against terrorism. This should include the investigation of terrorism suspects, but cannot mean that suspects can be whisked away to be held indefinitely and rights granted to them by the Constitution that we are supposedly trying to defend in the fight against terror are broken.
The events on Sept. 11, did end many lives in the crumbling Twin Towers as well as the Pentagon. Let’s not add justice to the list of deceased.
Sebastian Meyer is a junior majoring in environmental science and is an Oracle Opinion editor. firstname.lastname@example.org