Sami Al-Arian slumped forward in his wheelchair Saturday, reached forward and grasped a black chess piece to make his next move, as his wife, Nahla, looked on. His hand trembled, one of the many tolls exacted by a hunger strike approaching 60 days.
Nahla said he looked at his 16-year-old son, Ali, across the table of the crowded visiting room of the Butler, N.C., federal medical detention facility. Ali and the five other members of the Al-Arian family – two older sisters, an older brother, a younger sister and his mother – looked back at a father and husband 53 pounds lighter than when they last saw him in December.
The piece fell from his hand. A few minutes later he dropped another one. The weakness of taking only water for nourishment for 57 days made it difficult for Al-Arian, 49, to control delicate hand movements, like holding a chess piece. Then it happened again. And again.
“We were all shocked and upset,” Nahla said. “He wanted to show the youngest ones that he was OK. But they were worried. We are all very worried.”
Al-Arian’s hunger strike – begun Jan. 22 in protest of his continued incarceration – has left him a physical shell of the man his family knew, Nahla said. He can no longer walk and trembles constantly, and while he still laughs and jokes, his voice is a soft rustle compared to what it one was.
“He is so weak. We couldn’t believe it was him,” she said Wednesday, following family visits on Saturday, Sunday and Monday. “When I saw him, I thought that this is not the man I knew before, but then he began to talk and I could still recognize his voice.”
The toll on Al-Arian’s family may lack the stark quality of the former USF professor’s physical deterioration, but it was there, in the tears and worried looks of five children and a wife who cried when they first saw Al-Arian wheeled into the visiting room. Today, the former professor of computer science, who collapsed in a Virginia prison 37 days ago, carries his hunger strike into its 60th day, a point at which many hunger strikers die – if they live that long.
His family has found it hard to bear, said Nahla. She plans to return to the medical center today to persuade Al-Arian – who told the family Monday that he still plans to continue his strike – that he must stop. Federal Bureau of Prisons policy mandates the forcible feeding of inmates when their lives or health are threatened. BOP spokeswoman Traci Billingsley has said they will not let Al-Arian die.
“It is becoming very dangerous now,” Nahla said. “I must convince him to stop.”
Youngest feel it most Nahla said her youngest children – Lama, 13, and Ali, 16 – have had the hardest time coping with their father’s hunger strike. Ali told his mother he feared what his father might look like after two months of a water-only diet, she said.
“He asked me how will we see him like that,” Nahla said. “He will look scary.”
Ali and Lama have spent their school holidays going to see their father in prison since his arrest in 2003 on53-count indictment that charged Al-Arian with financing and executing a leadership position in the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ). They were very worried when they first saw their father, Nahla said.
“But little by little he began laughing, and joking and playing chess with them,” Nahla said. “And they began to feel better.”
During their five-hour visits with Al-Arian on Saturday, Sunday and Monday, the family only drank water to make it easier on Al-Arian, Nahla said.
Ali and Lama will join their mother as she visits Al-Arian again today. Her eldest daughters returned to their lives in Chicago and New York. Laila, 21, is a journalism student at Columbia University. Nahla and her two children stayed with the oldest of the Al-Arian children, Abdullah, on Wednesday and Thursday, non-visiting days at the federal facility in Butner.
“(Ali and Lama) told me that we have to do our best to stop him,” Nahla said.
Al-Arian has been held in an isolation cell and is bedridden. He has continued to receive breakfast, lunch and dinner, and a nurse checks on him twice a day, said officials from the Bureau of Prisons. Nahla said Al-Arian has not seen a doctor in two weeks and that she has requested she be allowed to send in outside doctors to check on her husband. Virginia White, executive assistant of the Butler facility, said she could not comment on the specifics of prisoners’ care.
“I hope that they will do something if they have to,” Nahla said.
Is it worth it?
Nahla, who calls Sami a political prisoner of the American government, has supported him throughout the hunger strike. When he called her to tell her he planned to begin the strike in January and even when he collapsed 23 days later in a Virginia prison, she supported him. But now, she says, it is time for her husband to stop.
Since his hunger strike began, Al-Arian and his family have appeared on Democracy Now!, and other national news outlets have provided coverage, such as the Associated Press, the Washington Post, and the New York Times.
Muslim and human rights advocacy groups have called for popular support of Al-Arian during the strike. The National Council of Churches initiated a letter-writing campaign through FaithfulAmerica.org, urging those concerned to voice their opinions directly to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. In late February, a coalition of Muslim groups called for a worldwide fast in support of Al-Arian.
“But it comes at a cost,” said Nahla. “(Al-Arian) has to pay with his health, and we have to pay with our worry.”
Nahla, who said her husband began the hunger strike in part because he felt the media had ignored his current situation, said it was too soon to tell whether the difficulties endured by her family thus far outweighed the potential benefits of the increased attention to her husband.
At the time of his arrest in 2003, when he was the epicenter of a storm of controversy, Al-Arian was a cause celebre among civil and human rights advocacy groups and received extensive media attention. The frenzy continued during his trial, when a jury found him not guilty of eight of the 17 terrorism-related charges brought against him, but deadlocked on the other nine. After the trial, Al-Arian signed a plea agreement with federal prosecutors, who planned to retry him on the remaining nine charges, and pled guilty to providing service for nonviolent terrorist activities to the PIJ.
After the plea agreement, much of the coverage of Al-Arian’s case dwindled, said Ahmad Bedier, director of the Tampa chapter of the Council of American Islamic Relations (CAIR).
“Since his hunger strike began, people have sent us letters that they are surprised that he is still in prison,” Bedier said. “They thought he was deported after the after the plea agreement. He has been successful because now you’ve got people all over the country who are discussing his situation.”
John Arnaldi, a USF employee who befriended Al-Arian after they met at a interfaith prayer service following the Sept. 11 attacks, said he supported Al-Arian at first, but now feels ambivalent.
“There are ways to work within the system,” said Arnaldi, who is a member of a local association of Quakers that have supported Al-Arian since his arrest. “We believe that in the end, the courts will decide things in his favor. We just hope he lives that long.”
This is not Al-Arian’s first hunger strike. In 2003, he began a strike shortly after his arrest by federal prosecutors and according to supporters, the strike lasted 140 days. But during that strike he took nutrients in liquids, and his situation never grew as grim as it is now, Nahla said.
Nahla said her husband called on Jan. 22 to tell her that he planned the hunger strike following a judge’s decision to hold him in contempt of court for a second time. He has twice refused to testify before a Virginia grand jury investigating a group of Islamic charities in northern Virginia. The contempt of court decision carries with it an 18-month prison sentence. It was handed down by a Virginia judge late last year when Al-Arian refused to testify for the first time. The sentence came 174 days before he finished the remainder of a sentence provided for in his plea bargain.