Have you seen them? The Betty Castor Senate campaign ads in which she claims to have fought terrorism one-on-one by facing down a terrorist at the University of South Florida? It leaves the impression she subdued a gun-toting terrorist with her bare hands. That alleged 'terrorist' is Sami Al-Arian, a former USF professor who has been held in federal prison for 17 months. He is still awaiting trial on charges that he "used an Islamic think-tank and a charity he founded to raise money for the Palestinian Islamic Jihad." According to the Miami Herald on May 27: "Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on Islamic-American Relations, and Al-Arian's wife Nahla, said he is held 23 hours a day in a small cell, continues to be strip-searched despite a judge's order that such searches stop and has been denied access to religious services. Al-Arian is only allowed one 15-minute telephone call a month, they said.
"Maybe my husband is not tortured physically, but mentally and emotionally," Nahla Al-Arian said. "I want this nightmare to end." She compared his treatment to the abuse of Iraqi prisoners. Awad said in one of the more recent incidents, Al-Arian and his co-defendant Sameeh Hammoudeh were stripped and searched in front of other prisoners following a videotaped court conference earlier this month..."
Below his daughters write about the situation.
A political arrest, after all
Laila and Leena Al-Arian
'It's all about politics,' our father, professor Sami Al-Arian, told the world when he was arrested Feb. 20, 2003, on charges that he allegedly supported terrorists. In the past 18 months, our family has witnessed our father condemned by an attorney general who holds no regard for due process. We have seen first hand his slow deterioration from the excessive conditions of his pre-trial detention and the way he has been unfairly maligned in the press. Now, he is being used as a pawn in a high-stakes political race. A year and a half later, it is clearer than ever that the case against him has always been politically motivated.
In their bid for Senate, Democratic candidates Peter Deutsch and Betty Castor have unfairly used our father to attack each other. Groups loyal to Deutsch had the gall to criticize Castor, the former University of South Florida president, for not firing our father, a tenured professor, when there were nothing but baseless accusations directed at his political activities. As recently as last year, the American Association of University Professors condemned USF President Judy Genshaft for firing him with no consideration for academic freedom or due process.
Rather than uphold these deeply held principles, Castor has also resorted to taking cheap shots at our beleaguered father. To attack her political opponents, she has pointed to a photograph of our family with then presidential candidate George W. Bush. In fact, a number of similar photographs exist of our father with numerous members of Congress, prominent civil rights leaders, and even former President Bill Clinton. All of these pictures are a testament to his strong belief in the democratic values that govern our country, including working within the system to affect positive change, principles he has instilled in his own children. More than anything, this photograph is a painful symbol of broken promises in a presidency that has failed the test of tolerance and inclusiveness. A recognized community leader, our father met with prominent individuals of all political stripes in an effort to restore the civil liberties of all Americans. Instead of encouraging such participation, as politicians, Deutsch and Castor have done other concerned citizens a disservice by casting a dark shadow over our father's laudable efforts.
Much to our dismay, what has been lost in this highly-charged debate is the fact that our father, who has not yet been to trial, has never been given the presumption of innocence. He is being judged by unsubstantiated accusations, not by any evidence against him. Anyone who has closely followed court proceedings over the past few months would know that the government has yet to present any case against our father. It is clear that their approach was to arrest him first and build their case later, a tactic more fitting for a police state.
Now the government has even stated its intent to circumvent due process of law by introducing secret evidence in court. Apparently an 11-year investigation that has yielded over 20,000 hours of wiretapped conversations, 700 videotapes, and tens of thousands of documents has not been enough to form a solid case. This is not surprising considering the court has been presented with numerous glaring inaccuracies in the government's case over the past 18 months. What's more, federal authorities' continuous harassment of Tampa's Muslim community demonstrates that the case has been sloppily put together and largely politically motivated. Perhaps the most obvious indication of this is the state of our father's pretrial detention. Only a month after his arrest, he was moved to Coleman Federal Penitentiary, where he is the only pre-trial detainee. There, he has been kept in solitary confinement and subject to humiliating treatment by prison guards, including frequent unnecessary strip searches. He is only given one 15-minute phone call per month. While we witness felons hugging their wives and children, we are allowed to see our father only through a glass partition. We find ourselves at a loss for words when our younger siblings ask us why we are treated differently.
In Coleman, our father is denied the right to attend religious services, not given adequate medical treatment, and prohibited from using the law library. Even more appalling is the fact that he has extremely limited contact with his attorneys and cannot examine evidence in the case kept here in Tampa. [Coleman is in Sumter County, halfway between Ocala and Tampa.]
A number of concerned individuals and organizations have condemned these conditions, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Council of Churches, and Amnesty International, which has called them "gratuitously punitive."
Under these circumstances, we are left to wonder if a fair trial is possible. Even in this Senate race, our father's political opponents have somehow found a way to further malign his character. These shameless attempts have only reconfirmed our father's words from that fateful morning, that his case is politically driven.
This traumatic experience has had a devastating effect on us, our mother, and our three siblings. No family should have to suffer the loss of a loving father and husband, especially one who has also contributed so much to the betterment of the society around him and has always taught us to do the same.
As a family, we are confident that, if given his day in court, our father will ultimately be exonerated of all unfounded accusations against him. However, until that day, no one, be it members of the media or politicians, should pass judgment or treat his fate as a foregone conclusion. That is simply un-American.
Laila Al-Arian is a journalist working in Washington, D.C. Leena Al-Arian is a senior at the University of South Florida.
We reprinted this letter from Just Peace, the newsletter of the Florida Coalition for Peace and Justice (www.fcpj.org), Summer 2004.
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