Refusal Keeps Terrorism Convict in Prison
Saturday, March 22, 2008
Former university professor Sami al-Arian wants to finish serving his prison sentence for a terrorism-related crime next month so that he can be deported to the Palestinian territories. But the Bush administration is threatening to keep him behind bars until he does something he has steadfastly refused to do: testify before a grand jury investigating allegations that Muslim charities aided terrorism organizations.
Arian, who taught computer engineering at the University of South Florida, said he is declining to testify against the charities because he thinks they were falsely charged, "and he doesn't want them to be persecuted the way he was," said Jonathan Turley, his attorney. As a result, Arian is to be held at the Northern Neck Regional Jail in Warsaw, Va., on civil contempt charges.
Arian started a hunger strike early this month to protest his subpoena, and he was recently transferred to a prison medical center in North Carolina after losing six pounds in 36 hours. He went on a previous hunger strike that lasted months.
Arian was at the center of one of the nation's highest profile terrorism cases, accused of conspiracy to commit racketeering and murder and to aid a terrorist group, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, in 2003.
Two years later, a jury acquitted him of eight counts and deadlocked on others, but Arian pleaded guilty to a single count of conspiracy to "make or receive funds . . . for the benefit of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad" and was sentenced to 57 months in prison, which included time already served.
As part of a plea agreement with U.S. attorneys in Tampa, he said he would serve an additional 12 months, with the understanding that the government would not seek his testimony in future terrorism cases, his lawyers said.
Arian's lawyers at the time said the deal was discussed but was excluded from the official agreement because it was mutually understood. Now the Justice Department says that the deal does not bar them from requesting Arian's testimony.
Turley said his client's sentence should have ended a year ago. But a judge extended a civil contempt citation against Arian for refusing to testify before a grand jury investigating the charities.
"The Al-Arian case constitutes one of the most disturbing abuses of the grand jury system in decades," Turley said. "You have a great injustice being perpetrated by the Justice Department. They've daisy-chained three grand jury investigations to prolong his incarceration."
But Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd said immunity for Arian was not a part of the agreement. "The plea agreement is clear, unambiguous and does not grant Al-Arian immunity from future grand jury subpoena," he said. "Therefore, we hold that the government did not break the plea agreement by issuing a subpoena commanding Al-Arian to testify before a grand jury."
In January, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit agreed with the Justice Department, ruling that Arian could not rely on a complicit understanding that was not directly mentioned in the plea agreement. The department issued its third subpoena later that month.
"It is certainly not uncommon for the government to expect a defendant to testify in the wake of a plea agreement," said Robert Chesney, an associate law professor at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. "In this instance, the agreement is silent on the question, and the court of appeals agrees with the government that this leaves the door open to subpoena his testimony."
Turley said the government and courts have laid a trap from which Arian cannot escape. "The government has called Dr. Al-Arian manipulative, and have made it clear that they don't trust a word he says," Turley said.
"They're setting a perjury trap. They intend to secure a conviction . . . by hook or by crook. He just wants to be leave prison and be deported."