“After 40 years, my time in the US has come to an end.”
This was the opening line of Professor Sami Al-Arian’s letter to supporters and the Muslim American community as he was finally deported from the United States on February 5, 2015.
Al-Arian’s deportation brings an end to a painful and torturous episode in the life of one of the most active Palestinian civil rights advocates. Sami bode farewell to the US after a plea bargain agreement, admitting in it to “one of the charges in exchange for a promise that after a maximum of incarceration of 57 months, he would be allowed to leave the country by April 2007”.
The agreement Sami signed with his lawyers in 2007 did not get implemented until federal prosecutors on June 27, 2014, finally “dismissed criminal contempt charges” that had kept Arian in legal limbo for years.
The perjury trap
The charges arose immediately after the plea bargain as the Justice Department called Al-Arian to testify in front of a constituted grand jury for a case involving the Virginia-based International Institute of Islamic Thought – a privately held non-profit organisation. Al-Arian, believing that the government was setting him up for a “perjury trap” refused to testify and consequently was charged with contempt and sent back to jail.
The signed plea bargain languished while Al-Arian spent more time in jail, went on a 60-day hunger strike in 2007, and went through numerous court sessions to gain his freedom and the ability to leave the country he had called home for 40 years. What was Arian’s case about and why was he targeted in the first place?
Al-Arian’s legal ordeal began on February 20, 2003, after a federal indictment followed by an arrest with eight other mostly Palestinian men on “terrorism and conspiracy” charges.
At the time of the arrest, the US Justice Department charged Al-Arian with “conspiracy to commit murder via suicide attacks in Israel and the Palestinian territories”, and for being the North American leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
The source of evidence was a foreign intelligence service, which was Israel and supposedly extensive wire tapping going as far back as 1990, included 20,000 hours of recorded conversations.
Changes in US law
In a press conference held on the same day of the arrest, Attorney General John Ashcroft said that “changes in US Law under the US Patriot Act – anti-terrorism legislation enacted after September 11, 2001 attacks, allowed authorities to make a criminal case against [Sami] Al-Arian”, which “removed longstanding legal barriers to bringing information gathered in classified national security investigations into criminal court”.
Al-Arian maintained that all along that the government case was political and directly connected to silencing Palestinian and Muslim voices critical of Israel and successive US administrations' unconditional support for an occupying power.
Al-Arian maintained all along that the government case was political and directly connected to silencing Palestinian and Muslim voices critical of Israel and successive US administrations’ unconditional support for an occupying power.
In thinking about Al-Arian’s case, one must take a broader lens and examine more closely how, under the rubric of fighting the “war on terrorism”, the Justice Department and successive US administrations systematically criminalised pro-Palestine activists in the US and targeted them using selective and distorted prosecutions and grand juries.
Even before the events of 9/11, activists and community organisers were subject to harassment and a well-designed federal strategy to entangle activists in legal proceedings dating back to the Reagan administration.
One of the most famous and longest cases involved the arrest and prosecution of the LA-8, a group of seven Palestinians and one Kenyan charged with supporting terrorism for no reason other than passing copies of al-Hadaf magazine, the PFLP publication, in community gatherings.
A 20-year ordeal
The case lasted from 1987 until 2007, a 20-year ordeal that criminalised advocacy for Palestine in the US.
Indeed, Al-Arian’s troubles began long before the events of 9/11, dating back to the early 1990s when he was targeted by the government under President Bill Clinton’s then newly adopted Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, and accused of supporting Palestinian organisations opposing the Israeli occupation.
The new AEDPA permitted law enforcement agencies to use “Secret Evidence” to arrest and possibly deport individuals which according to then House minority whip, David E Bonior, “is one of the most pernicious laws I’ve seen in my 28-year profession”.
What started in the 1990s accelerated post 9/11, making it possible for pro-Israel advocates inside and close to Bush’s administration to utilise the Patriot Act to go after Palestinian activists, charities providing support for needy families living under occupation and criminalising groups by linking them to terrorism through fictitious “material support” claims.
What developed is a new COINTELPRO strategy directed at Palestine advocates and supporters resulting in imprisonments for some, and deportation for others like Al-Arian. What was set in motion is the Israelisation of the US court and security system and to use it as a spear against Palestinians in the diaspora.
‘Death to Israel’
Al-Arian’s case in essence boils down to free speech and an Arabic statement he is reported to have uttered in an anti-Israel rally in 1988, which translates to something like “Death to Israel”.
Could Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims speak in this “war on terrorism” period and if they do, what are they allowed to say or not say? The “war on terrorism” in the US and for sure Canada has translated into a targeting campaign against Palestinian activists and affiliated organisations with the majority of cases brought to court under “material support” claims being directly connected to Palestine.
Consequently, the government targeting produced an induced state of fear and institutional distancing from the Palestine cause altogether on the one hand, while on the other producing a cadre of ready to play the good Muslim and good Arab role but on the condition that Palestine is set aside.
Al-Arian’s case was a warning to all “who dare to speak out” on Palestine and Muslim issues and organise the community for grassroots self-empowerment. More critically, the legal entanglement and deportation of a Palestinian from the US brings to focus the continuation of the never ending 1948 Palestinian Nakba.
Al-Arian moved from Egypt to the US in 1975, becoming once again a stateless Palestinian in need of a state or territory to grant him either residency or citizenship.
A Palestinian is guilty of a thought “crime”; of thinking Palestine is a real place at a time when the world has for the past 66 years accepted and continued to support a settler colonial project that dispossessed him or her of the right to claim, return, or utter the word Palestine in the halls of power.
The Nakba for Palestinians has never ended; for it continues to unfold daily for many, including Al-Arian and his family, while Israel’s oppressive machine not content to have stolen the land, has forcefully expelled the people and continues to lay siege to those in Gaza as well as trans-territorially tormenting and defaming Palestinians thousands of miles away in the diaspora.
Al-Arian is free and we are all assured more than ever before that Palestine will be free and “we shall overcome one day”.
Dr Hatem Bazian is co-editor and founder of the Islamophobia Studies Journal and director of the Islamophobia Research and Documentation Project, and a senior lecturer in the Departments of Near Eastern and Ethnic Studies at Berkeley.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.