Sami Al-Arian ended his hunger strike Friday morning when he took nutritious liquids for the first time in 60 days. Later that day, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a Virginia judge’s ruling finding Al-Arian, 49, in contempt of court for refusing to testify in a federal investigation of several Islamic charities suspected of aiding terrorist organizations.
“We felt so relieved. He told us that he did it for us, to end our worry. He said he stopped eating for us and started eating for us.”
– Nahla Al-Arian, Sami Al-Arian’s wife
It marked the first time that the former USF engineering professor had consumed anything other than water during a hunger strike which left him 50 pounds lighter, unable to walk and constantly trembling, said his wife, Nahla.
“We felt so relieved,” said Nahla. “He told us that he did it for us, to end our worry. He said he stopped eating for us and he started eating for us.”
Nahla said Al-Arian made the decision to “suspend” his hunger strike after she visited him at a federal medical facility in Butner, N.C. with her two youngest children, Ali, 16, and Lama, 13.
“When he said that he would stop, they felt like a burden on their shoulders had been lifted,” Nahla said. “They could not sleep. They could not eat. They could not focus on their studies. My husband said to them, ‘Guys, because it’s making you so upset and unhappy, I’m going to stop.”
Nahla and her children had been pleading with Al-Arian to stop his strike since Saturday, when they saw him for the first time in more than three months and were shocked by his condition.
Al-Arian will gradually begin to eat solid food in the coming weeks, but will remain on a liquid diet until then, Nahla said.
Nahla said her family prayed with Rev. Marcia Free of the First United Church of Christ during a visit with Al-Arian on Friday and that the tone was much different than their visits earlier in the week.
“The atmosphere has changed dramatically,” Nahla said. “We feel better and optimistic about the future. When we visited (Friday), we didn’t feel the pain as much because he eats now, thank God.”
Al-Arian began the hunger strike on Jan. 22 to protest a judge’s decision to hold him in contempt of court for his refusal to testify before a Virginia grand jury concerning the investigation of a cluster of Muslim charities in Virginia.
The appeal, which was filed under the alias John Doe, was based on Al-Arian’s contention that verbal agreements he made when signing his plea agreement exempted him from future testimony. He has also expressed fears that testifying in other cases may endanger his life. Al-Arian pleaded guilty to providing services for nonviolent activities to a terrorist group in the deal, which came after a jury acquitted him of seven of the 15 counts of terrorist-related activities brought against him in a 2006 Tampa trial, but deadlocked on the remaining eight.
“Everyone agrees that the written plea agreement in the Middle District of Florida contains no language which would bar the government from compelling appellant’s testimony before a grand jury,” the court wrote in its unpublished opinion. “It is also undisputed that the plea agreement contains an ‘integration clause,’ stating that the written agreement contains all agreements between the parties, and that appellant and his counsel acknowledged at the plea hearing that, with the sole exception of a promise to expedite his deportation upon service of his sentence, the government had made no additional promises to induce his plea.”
The contempt ruling mandated a sentence of 18 months in prison, of which Al-Arian will likely serve the remainder unless he chooses to testify. Following that, he will serve the remaining 174 days of a 57-month sentence agreed upon in his plea.
Though the court heard the matter, judges opted not to hear oral arguments because “the facts and legal conclusions are adequately presented in the materials before the court and argument would not significantly aid in the decisional process,” they wrote.
Nahla was unhappy with the court’s decision, calling the process “rushed,” and intimated that Al-Arian’s legal battles may yet continue.
“We felt that the decision was rushed,” Nahla said. “We didn’t present our argument before the court. They didn’t give us enough time to show them what we had. Everything was done in haste. The decision was disappointing, but this is not the end of our struggle. We can still take it to a higher level of the justice system. We’ll do our best. This shows again my husband’s statement that this case, it is a political case.”