My Family's Nightmare Caught on Film
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For nearly one year, my father, Sami Al-Arian, has been imprisoned on civil contempt for refusing to testify before a federal grand jury in Virginia. During plea negotiations in early 2006, federal prosecutors in Florida promised him he would not have to testify in any other cases. The moment he signed that agreement, his business with the government was supposed to have ended. He would serve the remainder of his sentence and finally be deported.
But a vindictive prosecutor from Virginia, Gordon Kromberg, resented that my father and his three co-defendants were largely acquitted by a jury following a lengthy trial in 2005. Kromberg is using every legal maneuver in his arsenal to prolong my father's imprisonment. A U.S. Attorney in Florida admitted, during a hearing regarding the plea agreement, that the boilerplate language dealing with cooperation was deleted from my father's agreement precisely because it was negotiated away. In Kromberg's world, his colleagues' words to my father, and the plea agreement both sides signed in good faith, are meaningless.
In his zeal to see my father locked away for as long as possible, Kromberg has shown an almost shameless degree of anti-Muslim animus. Perhaps it is no wonder he is the toast of neoconservative ideologues like Daniel Pipes, who hailed Kromberg's bigotry-laden rant about the "Islamization of the American justice system" as "courageous and valiant." Amnesty International has questioned Kromberg's motives, declaring that the biases he has demonstrated "raise further concern as to whether these proceedings are being taken to punish [Dr. Al-Arian] for his political profile rather than for legitimate purposes."
Prosecutors in Northern Virginia may soon charge my father with criminal contempt, according to a recent report in The New York Sun . This maneuver would be a shameless abuse of the criminal justice system and an abominable waste of U.S. taxpayer dollars. If prosecutors charge my father with criminal contempt, it will be obvious to everyone watching that it's nothing more than a case of sour grapes.
According to some estimates, the government has already squandered $50 million in its prosecution against my father. The trial was a resounding defeat for the government, which failed to prove its case that my father provided material support to terrorists. With the time in prison for civil contempt, my father has already served more time than he was sentenced. In February, he will have spent five years in prison. According to the plea agreement, my father was supposed to have been released from prison last April at the latest. But Kromberg and his DOJ cronies are abusing their power to lock him up indefinitely.
"From the beginning, it has been clear that this was a political prosecution and the pursuit of contempt by the rogue prosecutor in the Eastern District of Virginia have underscored this," said Linda Moreno, one of my father's trial attorneys. "As I have often said, I support my government going after terrorists and those who wish to do harm against my country. But I have never represented a terrorist, and an American jury found that Dr. Al Arian was no terrorist."
In May, at a sold-out screening in Tampa, Florida of USA vs. Al-Arian , an award-winning documentary about the trial and the toll it took on my family, I met Ron, one of the jurors who acquitted my father. "I'm sorry," Ron told me repeatedly. He said he wished he could have done more and fully acquitted my father. Two women on the jury refused to acquit my father of some charges, he explained. When asked why by other jurors, they refused to present any reasons. They disregarded the evidence in the case. Ron later elaborated at a panel discussion following the screening:
"They wouldn't tell us why they said guilty," the juror said. "They came up with really bad reasons, but most of the time it was 'I don't have to tell you. I don't even need a reason. I can just say he's guilty because I think he's guilty, and that's all'."
Both Ron and another juror interviewed in the 100-minute documentary said that prosecutors tried to pressure them to convict my father by essentially telling them, "Use your common sense." Actual proof was an afterthought.
The case against my father was predicated in large part on thousands of hours of conversations, most of which were presented out of context. Soon after deliberations began, according to Ron, most of the jurors realized "the State hadn't met its own standards" for conviction.
The documentary USA vs. Al-Arian , depicts my father's trial, documenting everything from the bomb-sniffing dogs hired to provide security outside the courthouse to the sensationalistic and often woefully inadequate news coverage of the case. One local television reporter confidently summarized my father's case as one about the conflict between "Palestinians and Israelites."
For several months, my family gave Norwegian director Line Halvorsen and her cinematographer Tone Andersen, total access to our lives. Though my siblings and I sometimes complained about the constant presence of cameras, which felt like extra eyes scrutinizing us during an emotionally turbulent time, my mother felt differently. She believed there should be a permanent record of the collateral damage of the U.S. government's misguided war on terror. At times, the project seemed like a bizarre version of The Real World directed by Franz Kafka. Though I've seen the film dozens of times, some scenes, such as those in which my mother breaks down in tears, are still difficult to digest.
In another scene, my family listened to a recording of my mother ordering a Big Foot pizza years earlier. My mother's two-minute conversation with a Pizza Hut dispatcher was one of half a million calls recorded by the FBI during a decade of relentless surveillance. One minute we're laughing at the memory of a strange, super-sized square pizza. But the next minute, we feel queasy at the thought of federal agents in dark suits listening to every intimate detail of our lives, from take-out orders to idle chitchat with friends.
The results of the FBI's reckless investigation caused Ron the juror to conclude, "We decided that there was no evidence. It wasn't that it was weak or poorly constructed. It just wasn't there. Political beliefs, personal beliefs, social beliefs, but I saw no evidence of anybody doing anything that they were accused of."
"I am concerned about the use of the grand jury process to keep adding to Dr. Al-Arian's jail time with no end in sight," said Rev. Warren Clark, a pastor of a church in Tampa. "Is this a way to 'Guantanamo' political prisoners within the United States?"
The threat of more prison time now looms over my father and his family. All we can do is watch and wait. One of the most potent forms of torture is uncertainty; not knowing when your prison term will end or what other tricks the government will use to prolong your detention. And my father isn't the only one being punished for his acquittal. Watching my adolescent brother and sister grow up without a father during the most critical years of their young lives has not been easy.
In a way, I understand and even sympathize with the desperate fantasy of Ali al-Marri, a Qatari citizen who has been held as an enemy combatant in a South Carolina brig without charge since 2003. "I'd love to be taken back to Saudi Arabia and they would beat the -- out of me for six months," al-Marri said. "It would be brutal, but it would be finite."
My father's nightmare, similarly, appears to have no end in sight.
Laila Al-Arian is a freelance journalist living in New York.