Research Report

The Strange Trial of Dr. Sami Al-Arian: Controversies around Secret Evidence, Academic Freedom, and Free Speech (2005)



Timeline of Events

Sami Al-Arian was born to Palestinian refugee parents in Kuwait. As refugees, Al-Arian never obtained Kuwaiti citizenship. In 1975, Al-Arian moves to the U.S., and attends Southern Illinois University, graduating in 1978 with a Bachelor's degree in Electrical Sciences and Systems Engineering. He then studied computer engineering at North Carolina State University, earning an M.S. in 1980 and a Ph.D. in 1986.
He was hired by the University of South Florida Department of Computer Science and Engineering as a (tenure-track) Assistant Professor in 1986. He soon won a good reputation as a teacher, winning a number of teaching awards from the USF College of Engineering. He was granted tenure in 1992, and promoted to Associate Professor.
As of 2002, he had published 46 papers. Most of these papers were presented at conferences organized by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), one of the two premier organizations for computer engineers. He has also won over a million dollars in grants.
In December 1993, Al-Arian applied for citizenship, and by September 1994, he had passed the citizenship exam. His application had been accepted, and he was waiting to be sweared in. He was asked to register to vote soon afterwards, and registered and voted in the Fall, 1994 election. This action began to cause problems for his application as an applicant is not a citizen until sworn in.
In December, 1995, the INS reopened his application because of the 1994 vote, but the State Attorney declined to prosecute.
In February, 1996, the INS sent Al-Arian a letter reversing its approval of his application, and he appealed the decision;
His appeal was heard in March, 1997. To date, no ruling has been decided.
Al-Arian's history as an activist for Muslim--and particularly Palestinian--causes goes back to his student days in the U.S. In the early 1980's, Al-Arian helped found the Islamic Association for Palestine, eventually leaving it over concern as to its direction. After the Palestinian Intifada started in December, 1987, he became much more active, founding a number of organizations, and attending a number of conferences and similar events.
In 1988, he founded the Islamic Concern Project, which served as an umbrella for several organizations, including the Islamic Committee for Palestine (ICP). The ICP ran yearly conferences throughout the Intifada from 1988 to 1992, and provided a forum for scholars and their publications on Palestinian issues. At the first conference, Al-Arian, his brother-in-law Al-Najjar, and Basheer Nafi began working on the concept that became the World and Islam Studies Enterprise (WISE) institute located at USF.
In 1991, Al-Arian incorporated The World and Islam Studies Enterprise (WISE). WISE was originally envisioned as a think tank in the D.C.-area, but ultimately Al-Arian and co-founders downscaled the institute to an office near USF. WISE's activities included publishing a quarterly journal and organizing conferences. The first director of WISE was Khalil Ibrahim Shikaki, a noted Palestinian scholar who was also teaching at USF. (Among the issues later pointed to by critics of Al-Arian was the fact that Shikaki's brother, Fathi Shikaki, was a founder of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ).) During the years between 1990 and 1995 WISE published its journal and ran a number of conferences, some of which were run jointly with USF, which was attempting to increase its presence in Middle Eastern Studies.
During this period Al-Arian also founded a mosque and the Islamic Academy of Florida, a private day school half a mile from USF.
Throughout the Intifada Al-Arian attended a number of the many rallies for the Palestinian cause in the United States. In Cleveland in 1991, Al-Arian was introduced by a speaker who called the Islamic Committee for Palestine ``the active arm of the Jihad movement in Palestine.'' A videotape of this event shows Al-Arian saying, ``Death to Israel,'' during his talk. While Al-Arian would later say on the September 26, 2001 Bill O'Rielly Show that he meant death to the Israeli oppression of Palestine, the videotape of this event was later shown on Dateline NBC and Fox News and has been pointed to by many as evidence of Al-Arian's terrorist connections.
On November 21, 1994, Steven Emerson’s PBS production Jihad in America aired nationwide. Jihad in America consisted of several stories cobbled together, and mentioned the Al Arian's ICP, which Emerson said was the primary support group for ``Islamic Jihad'' in the US.
There were negative reactions, and on November 23, 1994 the Tampa Tribune reported Al-Arian as saying the production was, ``a deliberate attempt to defame and distort the cause of Muslim organizations in the United States.'' Nevertheless, the production won the prestigious George Polk Award. And on Feb. 23, 1995, the FBI contacted the campus police: the FBI was interested in Al-Arian, Al-Najjar, and one Ramadan Abdullah (described below).
The Tampa Tribune's investigative reporter Michael Fechter spent several months following up on the story, and in May, 1995 a two-part story on Ties to Terrorists generated a lot of local media attention:
On May 28, Fechter reported that many activists known or suspected of being involved with HAMAS and the PIJ appeared at ICP meetings, and contended that charitable donations collected at ICP meetings may have been diverted to support terrorist activities. Fechter stated that Emerson had copies of checks from the ICP to unnamed charities which Emerson claimed funded terrorists. Emerson was cited saying that ICP's own publications were the most compelling proof of ICP's involvement with the PIJ, stating that one of the publications reflected the PIJ's point of view.
The USF/WISE report. Returning to USF news, on June 2, 1995, less than a week after Fechter's expose of WISE, USF suspended its relationship with WISE. Ramadan Abdullah Shallah joined the WISE staff in 1991, under the name ``Ramadan Abdullah,'' which is the name he used at USF (except on employment forms!?). Shallah started teaching at USF in Spring, 1994, and his teaching performance in 1994 was regarded as satisfactory. In Spring, 1995, his teaching performance deteriorated: there were complaints bias and mechanical problems (e.g., tardiness), and a decision not to rehire him was rendered moot that Summer when he announced that he was returning to Gaza to care for a dying father and to write a book. No one heard from him or about him until Oct. 28, three weeks after Fathi Shikaki was assassinated, when pamphlets appeared in the Occupied Territories announcing that Shallah was the new secretary-general of the PIJ, and after his Oct. 30 TV appearance in Damascus, Shallah was quickly identified as USF's Ramadan Abdullah. This surprised both USF people who had not taken Abdullah to be any kind of radical, and observers who wondered how a ``business professor'' would run the PIJ. In November, 1995, the FBI publicized its investigation of WISE, searched the WISE/ICP office, and Al-Arian's campus office and home, carting off some fifty boxes of documents and other materials. The FBI has held onto this evidence, resisting all attempts by outsiders to review it, while contending that its investigation was continuing --- and it continues even now. on May 13, 1997, Immigration Judge J. Daniel Dowell ordered Mazen and Fedaa Al-Najjar deported, in Mazen's case because, according to INS calculations, he had overstayed his visa by ten years. On May 19, 1997, Mazen Al-Najjar was arrested. • On June 6, 1997, Al-Najjar's case was heard before U.S. Immigration Judge Kevin McHugh, who had told defense counsel that he had been presented with secret evidence that Al-Najjar was a security risk. • On Oct. 27, 2000, McHugh concluded that ``The court has not been presented with any [non-secret] evidence linking (Al-Najjar) to the Palestinian Islamic Jihad,'' and gave the INS two weeks to decide choose whether to share the secret evidence with the defense ... or drop the case. The St. Petersburg Times reported that an INS witness had admitted ``that Al-Najjar had not engaged in a single act of violence, nor were any funds traced to a terrorist group.'' The INS got more than two weeks, but in the first week of December, McHugh decided to let Al-Najjar out on bail. And despite a last-minute intervention by U.S. Attorney-General Janet Reno, Al-Najjar was ultimately freed on Dec. 15. Al-Arian since 1994? He went on sabbatical during the academic year 1995-1996, and then was put on paid leave (in May, 1996, just after the bomb threat), and remained on leave until 1998. Meanwhile, he remained active and outspoken, although after his brother-in-law was detained, he started turning more towards civil liberties issues, being active in the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), while founding the Tampa Bay Coalition for Justice and Peace (TBCJP), an affiliate of the National Coalition to Protect Political Freedom (NCPPF), which Al-Arian also helped organize. • One issue in which Al-Arian is especially active is the use of secret evidence in INS proceedings. The use of secret evidence is very controversial because it appears to violate the 6th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution (although the courts have held that as INS proceedings are not criminal trials, they are still leery of it). Nevertheless, the practice disturbs many, and Al-Arian has many fellows in his campaign against the use of secret evidence, including Michigan Congressman David Bonior, who helped pressure Janet Reno into releasing Al-Najjar in 2000, and who has lobbied Bush to stop using secret evidence. In addition, Al-Arian's family has also become active. His wife, Nahla Al-Arian, Mazen Al-Najjar's sister, testified against the use of secret evidence before the House Judiciary Committee on February 10, 2000, and on May 23, 2000. And his son, Abdullah Al-Arian, born in the U.S.A., worked for Bonior. Meanwhile, the FBI seems to have successfully destroyed WISE and the ICP, which disappeared in 1995. • During the 2000 campaign, many Arab Americans supported Bush because of his more sympathetic public statements on several issues, including the use of secret evidence in INS proceedings (see, e.g., the May 2000 Congress Watch in the Washington Report on Middle Eastern Affairs, As November Elections Approach, Arab Americans Poised to Exert Their Influence). Certainly Al-Arian did so, and that has won Bush some ribbing from BushNews. At the election, about 80 % of American Muslims voted for Bush ( apparently 90 % of Florida Muslims did so). But Bush did not follow through after the election, and his Administration gave a number of signals that it was not friendly to American Muslims. One of those signals occurred on June 28, 2001, when a delegation including Al-Arian's son Abdullah (a native-born American citizen) was scheduled to meet with White House officials at the Old Executive Office Building; Abdullah was ordered to leave without explanation, and the rest of the delegation angrily left with him (the Secret Service later pled confusion, and President Bush sent a letter of apology). Nevertheless, Al-Arian remained hopeful, and as he later explained to the St. Petersburg Times, Sept. 11, 2001 was supposed to be a very good day. President George W. Bush was visiting Florida, and he was scheduled to make a major policy statement on the use of secret evidence that afternoon. USF closed on Sept. 11, but reopened on Sept. 12 On Sept. 26, Professor Al-Arian appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, ostensibly to talk about Muslim support for America. But O'Reilly spent the time hurling accusations at Al-Arian, accusations that were quickly picked up by the press and echoed in angry phone calls and mail, and threats, to Al-Arian personally and to USF in general. On Sept. 27, Al-Arian was suspended. USF President Genshaft explained her position to faculty and the public while on Oct. 17, the USF Faculty Senate supported suspending Al-Arian. Meanwhile Dateline ran a somewhat garbled piece on the entire affair. In November, the Administration claimed that Al-Arian violated an oral instruction; Al-Arian claimed not to have received this instruction. (This alleged insubordination, which was to not visit USF campus, would become a major item in the rationale to dismiss Al-Arian.) Meanwhile, the INS swooped down on Al-Arian's brother-in-law, citing secret evidence. • This section covers the Dec. 19 meeting of the Board of Trustees, in which the BOT recommended that Al-Arian be dismissed. • Letter of Dimissal. Wasting no time, a Letter of Dismissal was sent on Dec. 19, and was instantly endorsed by Governor Jeb Bush and Florida Secretary of Education Jim Horne. On December 19, 2001, President Judy Genshaft announced Professor Al-Arian's imminent termination. Since this termination involved Professor Al-Arian's due process and academic freedom and tenure rights, the UFF quickly became involved. The UFF defends the contract by which professors at USF are hired, and any violation of the contract threatens the entire faculty at USF. During 2002, and into 2003, UFF assisted Al-Arian in his confrontation with the USF Board of Trustees. On March 20, 2002 Customs officials raided 14 targets in Virginia, including one that had had ties to Al-Arian's WISE and ICP. Aug 21, 2002 Preceded by announcements and leaks, President Genshaft, BOT Chair Richard Beard, and four lawyers held a press conference to announce that they were: o Changing the rationale for dismisssal. The reason now was that Al-Arian had allegedly assisted terrorists. o Not sending the Notice of Termination yet. The Administration wanted a court to rule on whether it violated Al-Arian's First Amendment rights. o Suing Al-Arian. The request for a ruling was presented as a lawsuit, with Al-Arian as the defendent. AUG 19 Al-Arian's brother-in-law Mazen Al-Najjar has been in (solitary) detention since November 25, 2001, pending deportation, with an order based on secret evidence Al-Najjar's lawyer has not been permitted to see, pending deportation, although no nation has accepted him. There have been no charges, and the evidence against him is secret, although some of it has evidently been leaked and apparently concerns his activities in WISE and the ICP, where al-Najjar had assisted Al-Arian. The Aug. 19, 2002 St. Petersburg Times reported that Al-Najjar finds a home abroad: An unidentified country will accept the former USF professor after he gains travel documents from the Palestinian Authority By some curious coincidence, the USA attempted to deport Al-Najjar to Bahrain at this time, and wound up deporting him to Lebanon. While Al-Arian continued to give speeches, and partisans on all sides waited for the federal court to decide if it would hear the case, the campaign to save the contract that protects all faculty got into high gear. This contract is at the center of the dispute between Al-Arian and the USF Board of Trustees, and it is also what protects due process and academic freedom rights for all faculty. And it was set to expire on January 7, 2002, and the USF Board of Trustees was resisting every effort to extend it, or replace it with a newly bargained contract. USF had sued Al-Arian, asking for a declaratory ruling that its proposed letter of termination did not violate Al-Arian's First Amendment rights. In December, a federal court dismissed the suit, leaving the Administration with the choice of appealing or ... doing something else. Meanwhile, everyone prepared for Jan. 7, when the reorganization had been supposed to be finalized, and when USF insisted that the contract expired. February 20, 2003: After nearly eight years of government harassment due to his activities on behalf of Palestine and his political activism and leading stance on civil rights in America, Dr. Sami Al-Arian is arrested by federal authorities on spurious charges of supporting terrorism. Three others are also arrested and detained at a local jail. To protest his political incarceration, Dr. Al-Arian embarks on a hunger strike. On February 20, 2003, Sami Al-Arian was arrested on a 50-count indictment for violations of the racketeering and other federal laws. Al-Arian, the Department of Justice claimed, was one of those enablers who handle the nuts and bolts of a lethal organization. He did not commit the acts of terror himself, so the Department said, he merely made them possible. The case was built on a vast array of intercepted communications, but the way these communications were obtained, transcribed, translated, and interpreted threatened to make this, as one astute young fellow suggested (with depressing enthusiasm) the most complicated legal muddle since the O.J. trial. on Feb. 26, President Genshaft sent Al-Arian the third, and apparently final, Letter of Termination. Al-Arian is fighting the dismissal, but (by his choice) outside of the contract, thus relegating UFF, in his lawyer's words, ``out of the loop.'' February 27, 2003: Only one week after Dr. Al-Arian is charged, the President of the University of South Florida, with pressure from the Board of Trustees, fires Dr. Al-Arian from his position as an award-winning tenured professor, after over a year of trying to do so, in the aftermath of the post-9/11 hysteria surrounding his constitutionally protected activities. March 20, 2003: The bail hearing for Dr. Al-Arian and his co-defendants lasts four days and features over thirty-five witnesses in defense of their character, with the prosecution providing no witnesses and no evidence, and failing to show that any of the men are flight risks or threats to national security. Weeks later, Magistrate Mark Pizzo denies bail to Dr. Al-Arian and Sameeh Hammoudeh. Hatim Fariz and Ghassan Ballut, two American citizens, are granted bail. March 27, 2003: The men are moved from the local jail in Tampa, Florida to a maximum-security federal penitentiary in Coleman, Florida, 75 miles away. There they are placed in solitary confinement and denied basic privileges, given limited visitations and access to attorneys and subjected to strip searches and the harshest conditions of confinement. Dr. Al-Arian and Mr. Hammoudeh are the only pre-trial detainees in a facility full of hardcore criminals. April 8, 2003: Unable to raise enough funds for private attorneys, Dr. Al-Arian is appointed attorneys by Magistrate Thomas McCoun. In the months ahead, little progress is made under their services. April 10, 2003: Dr. Al-Arian and Mr. Hammoudeh are denied bail, while Hatim Fariz and Ghassan Ballut are released from Coleman federal penitentiary. Also, a new civil rights organization, the National Liberty Fund (NLF) announces it will be taking on the case of Dr. Sami Al-Arian and organizes a number of events across the country in the following months. June 5, 2003: Judge Moody announces the trial date to be no sooner than January 2005, nearly two years following the arrest. June 15, 2003: In its annual meeting, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) condemns the University of South Florida, stating that it violated the rights of Dr. Al-Arian to due process and academic freedom. June 18, 2003: Upon making a phone call to his home and then to his son who was studying abroad, Dr. Al-Arian is punished for violating the Coleman penitentiary's ban on three-way calling. He is given a six-month ban on all phone calls. July 17, 2003: Respected human rights organization Amnesty International writes a letter to the Federal Bureau of Prisons condemning the conditions under which Dr. Al-Arian is kept, including the 23-hour lockdown, strip searches, use of chains and shackles, severely limited recreation, lack of access to any religious service and denial of a watch or clock in a windowless cell where the artificial light is never turned off. July 25, 2003: Dr. Al-Arian is allowed to fire his court-appointed attorneys following months of little progress in his case or improvements in the conditions of confinement. He chooses to act as his own attorney. In preparation for his self-representation, he ends his hunger strike after 140 days and losing 45 pounds. September 12, 2003: Following a frustrating few months of little development for Dr. Al-Arian's case or improvement in his confinement, Judge Moody rules that the 21,000 hours of taped conversations classified by the government must be released to defense attorneys, but they are barred from releasing them to the public or discussing them with anyone other than their clients. The process of providing these tapes to the defense is slow and tedious. October 29, 2003: After three months of representing himself, Dr. Al-Arian hires respected Washington DC attorney William B. Moffitt and the experienced local lawyer Linda Moreno to represent him. December 9, 2003: A Chicago Tribune article reveals that key evidence in the case was destroyed by federal authorities. The search warrants and other related materials from the early searches of Dr. Al-Arian's home and office were mistakenly shredded by court officials. January 20-22, 2004: Sameeh Hammoudeh is denied his request for bail. A judge also orders the government to release more of its evidence. The government narrows its use of wiretapped conversation from the 21,000 hours to 200 hours of relevant material. Defense attorneys argue for motions to dismiss the indictment on grounds that it criminalizes free speech and First Amendment protected activities.