When Your Father Is Accused of Terrorism
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For a while, the phone stopped ringing. Not completely—reporters called, but many old friends did not.
That’s how my mother remembers the days following my father’s arrest on terrorism charges in February 2003. At dawn, a team of FBI agents and police, clad in black uniforms, descended on my family’s three-bedroom apartment in Tampa, Florida. They arrested my father and carted away dozens of boxes filled with our personal possessions, from school report cards to laptop computers and journals.
My father, Sami Al-Arian, a professor at the University of South Florida, was indicted on fifty-three counts of supporting the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which had been designated by the government as a terrorist group. The conspiracy case, which involved three other Palestinian men, was based largely on my father’s charitable contributions, associations, speeches and other First Amendment–protected activities. Prosecutors would introduce as evidence books my father owned, magazines he edited, conferences he organized and, particularly bizarre, a dream one of his co-defendants had about him. My father faced multiple life sentences plus 225 years if convicted. The charges against him included conspiracy to kill and maim persons abroad, yet prosecutors freely admitted that my father had no connection to any violence.
As the government built its case against my father, FBI agents interrogated one Muslim family after another. Overwhelming fear pervaded the community. My father, a pillar of that community, had founded and run an Islamic school near the mosque where he also led prayers. After the arrest, my mother, Nahla, was asked to withdraw my younger siblings from the school that she and my father had worked so hard to build. Returning for a visit, my mother was asked what she was doing there. Shopping for groceries, she saw a longtime friend turn her back to avoid talking to her. “It was shocking and depressing,” my mother recalls.
One day my mother read a letter to a local newspaper that condemned my father’s harsh prison conditions and the one-sided media coverage of his case. The author said my father had the right to a presumption of innocence, adding, “History will teach us that what can happen to one man can happen to any of us. Are we going to sit back and watch, or are we going to speak up?” The letter was signed by Melva Underbakke, a peace activist and English language instructor who also worked at the University of South Florida. My mother called to thank her. They became friends, and Mel, as she became known to us, formed a group called Friends of Human Rights to support my father.
Mel introduced his case to her fellow congregants at the progressive First United Church of Christ. Many joined the cause, including the church’s minister, the Rev. Warren Clark, who began visiting my father weekly in a ritual he dubbed “Tuesdays with Sami.” The two men exchanged jokes, as well as stories from the Koran and Bible about perseverance in adversity.
My father’s trial lasted six months. Prosecutors presented seventy-five witnesses, including nearly two dozen from Israel. Their testimony centered on attacks that even the US government acknowledged my father had nothing to do with. The prosecutors also introduced 400 phone calls out of nearly half a million that the FBI had recorded over a decade of relentless, indiscriminate surveillance of my family. My father’s attorneys did not call a single witness: their defense was the First Amendment.