“I woke up and said to myself, ‘They’re here,'” Nahla Al-Arian said.
She and her husband, still asleep in bed, frantically tried to dress themselves as the officers shouted for them to open the door.
After numerous threats to break it down, Nahla opened the door. Several FBI officers rushed in, some brandishing their weapons.
“The first thing I saw was a gun in my face,” Nahla said.
Moments later, former USF computer engineering professor Sami Al-Arian was forced up against a wall and taken into custody.
That was three years ago today when FBI agents hauled her husband off to a federal prison in Coleman.
Hours later, former Attorney General John Ashcroft said Al-Arian had been actively funding terrorist attacks in Israel as the head of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
USF administrators alleged he used his academic position to support terrorism and fired Al-Arian six days later.
When his case went to trial in June 2005, U.S. attorneys used thousands of taped phone conversations, electronic documents and dozens of witnesses to convince the jury of his involvement with the PIJ.
In the end, he was found not guilty on eight of 17 charges, including conspiracy to maim and murder people abroad and providing material support to a terrorist organization. He was acquitted on all other charges, with 10 of 12 jurors acquitting him on all charges.
Al-Arian remains in jail pending the government’s decision to retry him on the remaining counts. Conspiracy to commit racketeering and conspiracy to provide material support to a terrorist organization are among the remaining charges.
Judge James Moody has scheduled the retrial for April.
As a prisoner at Orient Road Jail, Al-Arian is limited to three 20-minute phone conversations per day. Al-Arian agreed to an exclusive phone interview with the Oracle on Thursday.
It is the second phone interview to be conducted with the media since his incarceration.What follows is a transcript of one 20-minute conversation split between Sami Al-Arian, his wife and the Oracle News Editor Ryan Blackburn. Al-Arian was not provided with the questions ahead of time.
Ryan Blackburn: How are you feeling?
Sami Al-Arian: I’m all right, I guess. I’m very disappointed that we have to go through this again, but other than that I’m all right.
R.B.: What do you think should have happened after the acquittal in December?
S.A.: If the government were true to the system – let me give you a simple example: Right before the verdict on my part, there was a federal trial with a guy. I forgot his name; he was the owner of the Hooters the restaurant chain, and he was accused and charged with tax evasion – I think $11 billion dollars or something to that effect. His case ended with a mistrial, 6-6, and the government said if we couldn’t convince more than six people, we’re not going to retry this, that’s the end of it.
Then on my part, I got a 10-2 acquittal – not 6-6, 10-2 – and still they don’t want to drop it. They still want to spend the taxpayers’ money and continue this persecution without any regard to what the jurors said and observed and commented. I’m disappointed in that, had I not been a Palestinian and a Muslim and an Arab, things would have been extremely different. People would have understood that the government cannot win this case and they would just drop it, but this government will not do that. Because, I think, of the reason to (inaudible) and also because I believe the media pressure that has been going on, which is unrelenting unfortunately from the mainstream.
R.B.: What’s been the worst part of all this?
S.A.: The worst part is feeling that your family is suffering. That’s been the most torturous part. You know you’re innocent, you know that you haven’t done anything that deserved all this, and this has been a political case from day one, and knowing that not only you had to suffer – which, sometimes if you have to take it, you take it. But why should your family be suffering? Your children are growing up without you, they are deprived of your love and your kindness and your guidance and your advice, and your wife is suffering on a daily basis; that’s the toughest part. Knowing that – that this is an ordeal that has been going on know for three years and is continuing and you can’t do much about it.
R.B.: Have you been keeping in contact with any former students or faculty from the University?
S.A.: I know some people do send me messages (and) e-mails, and I get them through the coalition e-mails. Some people send me their regards and things of that sort, but I don’t have any official contact with anyone at the University. Friends and supporters, yes.
R.B.: How do you get your news?
S.A.: I am allowed a radio, and I do get a newspaper. Of course the conditions of confinement are extremely restrictive, particularly restrictive. I’ve spent three years now in solitary confinement, two of them in one of the most restrictive environments you could ever have in a federal penitentiary. It’s called the special housing unit, and it is no different really from what Guantanamo is. If you know how Guantanamo people are treated, (it’s) pretty similar to it with one exception, and that is that you can get weekly visits.
And when I was there for two years at Coleman, I was the only pretrial detainee in that unit. That unit is designed for federal convicts who have disciplinary problems. That unit is not even designed for normal prisoners. If you are in the general compound and you knife somebody or you have a fight with a guard or you have any other kind of disciplinary problem, they will transfer you to that unit for disciplinary purposes, and normally you stay there for a month or two. I was there for two years. Even those people are allowed contact visits. I was never allowed a contact visit. Normally, if you are in the compound you have about 60 minutes a day of phone call privileges. Over there you have 15 minutes a month. That is one call a month. If you misdial or get the wrong number or don’t find your folks, that’s it and you’re on to the next month. I wasn’t allowed to even make a phone call for six months.
It was designed basically as psychological torture against me. I was the only person who was pretrial in the whole facility of 75,000 people.
And now I’m here (at Orient Road Jail) for a year, and it’s still 23 hours of solitary confinement a day. You are only allowed to exercise two hours a week, three hours if you’re lucky. That’s not even the standard; I mean the standard – if you go to any standard prison, even for solitary confinement people there are supposed to get one hour a day, and I’m not even getting that.And for whatever reason, I’m not even in the men’s section of the prison; they are putting me in the female section of the prison. And of course the females are not around me. I am in a whole compound by myself. There are four cells that are totally empty. I am the only one in it.
They tell you this is for your protection, but obviously it’s not that. And every time you leave your cell, you’ve got to be hand shackled and leg shackled and all kinds of humiliation and unnecessary procedures, which doesn’t make any sense because where are you going to go? You’re totally surrounded, but that’s the way it has been. All these procedures I’ve been subjected to here in the county, they are not regular procedures. These are really extraordinary procedures that they don’t explain to you (the reasons behind), but you know you can deduce the feds keep telling us to do this, do that.
R.B.: Would you care to elaborate what those procedures are?
S.A.: You’re not allowed, for instance, to congregate for religious services. I am probably the only Muslim here that is not allowed to join the Muslim congregation in prayer. I’m not allowed to go to the library. I’m not allowed to basically talk to anybody.
I don’t have any men to talk to here, but even if I had been in the men’s section, I’m not allowed to talk to anybody or be with anybody – even to exercise with anybody – so you’re in total isolation.
R.B.: How do you spend your day?
S.A.: Basically I do a lot of reading, because you are allowed to receive books and newspapers. I listen to the radio (you are allowed a radio), and I pray a lot. I am allowed to call my family, unlike in the federal system, which I was in for two years. But that’s only for a limited amount of time daily, like from a half an hour to an hour a day.
And these kinds of restrictions, I can tell, you were designed to hamper my defense. When I was in the federal system for two years, I wasn’t allowed at the beginning even to have much legal material in my cell, and whenever I would meet with my lawyers, they were not allowed to bring in a lot of material when they met with me. And when you go to them, you really had to walk a lot of distance (with) legs shackled, hands cuffed behind your back, and they would refuse to carry your legal material. So for a couple of months, I had to carry them on my back. So I had to bend over with my legal material on my back and walk all the way from my cell to where my lawyer would be, which was about close to half a mile of walking distance. I walked like that for two months until the captain saw me one day and was extremely angry with the guards for the way they had been doing it. Then they changed it, and at that time they started hand cuffing me from the front with a chain around the waist where I could carry my legal stuff with my hands.All these were unnecessary, but it’s part of the system, I guess, to put whatever pressure they can on you.
R.B.: What type of an effect do you think this case has had on Muslim and non-Muslim relations?
S.A.: This case has been widely observed overseas. The channel Al Jazeera had a lot of coverage for it, so people are very much aware what is going on, and they thought that it would be very difficult for a Palestinian and a Muslim to receive a fair trial in this country, and the jury proved them wrong and we were extremely proud of them. And that’s been basically communicated. So in a sense it was very bad for the Arab, Muslim Palestinian populations in the Middle East to see that people are being persecuted for exercising their freedom of speech.
At the same time they were extremely and happily surprised that justice could still be rendered and that the jury system is indeed a system that shows the true meaning of democracy, where you have 12 ordinary people sitting and listening to the evidence and not being prejudiced by the environment around them as well as by the government’s intimidation and voting to acquit, so that I think was extremely positive in the minds of the people, and I think that that made it easier for people to appreciate the true meaning of democracy and involvement of every citizen. But at the same time you look at what the government is doing and you know, so the pendulum goes back and forth.
Look at what the government is doing and look what the people are doing, so there is a keen understanding that the American people are much more open, just and fair than the government.
R.B.: What do you think about the treatment of Sameeh Hammoudeh?
S.A.: It’s unconscionable. I mean, it’s unbelievable. It just shows that even if somebody is acquitted, that they wouldn’t let go. To me, I am extremely surprised and disappointed. It doesn’t make any sense. But I think eventually he would leave, it’s not going to go on forever. It’s just a matter of days, if not sooner. I cannot imagine that this can go on without the judge making a determination.
R.B.: What kind of an outcome are you looking for in your case?
S.A.: Fair treatment, and fairness said that there wasn’t evidence. The jurors have said that there was no evidence.
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S.A.: The way to deal with this would be for the government to drop its case and move on. We have been treated extremely unfairly and unjustly, and that’s got to stop. That’s got to stop.Let’s face it: They had 90 counts over four defendants, not a single guilty verdict they were able to get out of this jury, and in most cases, there was total acquittal or (inaudible), and they had every single thing and demand they asked the judge (granted); they gave them everything.
Nahla Al-Arian: You don’t have enough time, that’s it.