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Update: Sami Al-Arian Leaves the U.S.


UPDATE 2/5/15 10 a.m.

Sami Al-Arian's criminal attorney, Jonathan Turley, has confirmed what WUSF first reported Tuesday - the former USF professor has formally been deported from the United States.

In a statement posted on his webpage Thursday morning, Turley said Al-Arian and his wife, Nahla, left the country Wednesday night and arrived in Istanbul, Turkey.

The Al-Arian case will remain a chilling chapter in our history. The treatment of Dr. Al-Arian after his acquittal on most of the charges was widely viewed as a shocking abuse of the system and a flagrant violation of agreement reached with the Justice Department. The Justice Department put unprecedented effort into the Florida prosecution and suffered one of its greatest trial defeats in an area where convictions were taken for granted. The later proceedings were viewed as retaliatory and abusive by prosecutors. It also showed how the civil and contempt laws can be used to abuse individuals and leave them with little recourse or rights. Justice ultimately prevailed but the cost to Dr. Al-Arian and his family was prohibitively high. The United States reached a deal with this man that committed his country to allowing him to leave following his jail stint. No matter how one feels about Dr. Al-Arian’s writings or beliefs, we should honor our agreements as a nation. Instead, the Justice Department broke that deal and then daisy-chained contempt citations to prolong his incarceration. It was abusive and it was wrong. It is now over.

A jury found Al-Arian not guilty of a number of terrorism-related charges in 2005 in relation to his support of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which is on a U.S. list of terrorist organizations, but deadlocked on a number of other charges. 

Rather than face another trial, Al-Arian reached a plea agreement in 2006 that included deportation. However, federal officials in Virginia wanted Arian to testify before a grand jury investigating the International Institute of Islamic Thought. When he refused, he was first imprisoned in 2008 on contempt of court charges and then placed under house arrest in 2009.

All charges against Al-Arian were dropped this past June.

Al-Arian posted his own statement on Wednesday on the Free Sami Al-Arian webpage:

February 4, 2015 A Statement by Dr. Sami A. Al-Arian To my dear friends and supporters, After 40 years, my time in the U.S. has come to an end. Like many immigrants of my generation, I came to the U.S. in 1975 to seek a higher education and greater opportunities. But I also wanted to live in a free society where freedom of speech, association and religion are not only tolerated but guaranteed and protected under the law. That’s why I decided to stay and raise my family here, after earning my doctorate in 1986. Simply put, to me, freedom of speech and thought represented the cornerstone of a dignified life. Today, freedom of expression has become a defining feature in the struggle to realize our humanity and liberty. The forces of intolerance, hegemony, and exclusionary politics tend to favor the stifling of free speech and the suppression of dissent. But nothing is more dangerous than when such suppression is perpetrated and sanctioned by government. As one early American once observed, “When the people fear their government, there is tyranny; when the government fears the people, there is liberty.” Because government has enormous power and authority over its people, such control must be checked, and people, especially those advocating unpopular opinions, must have absolute protections from governmental overreach and abuse of power. A case in point of course is the issue of Palestinian self-determination. In the United States, as well as in many other western countries, those who support the Palestinian struggle for justice, and criticize Israel’s occupation and brutal policies, have often experienced an assault on their freedom of speech in academia, media, politics and society at large. After the tragic events of September 11th, such actions by the government intensified, in the name of security. Far too many people have been targeted and punished because of their unpopular opinions or beliefs. During their opening statement in my trial in June 2005, my lawyers showed the jury two poster-sized photographs of items that government agents took during searches of my home many years earlier. In one photo, there were several stacks of books taken from my home library. The other photo showed a small gun I owned at the time. The attorney looked the jury in the eyes and said: “This is what this case is about. When the government raided my client’s house, this is what they seized,” he said, pointing to the books, “and this is what they left,” he added, pointing to the gun in the other picture. “This case is not about terrorism but about my client’s right to freedom of speech,” he continued. Indeed, much of the evidence the government presented to the jury during the six-month trial were speeches I delivered, lectures I presented, articles I wrote, magazines I edited, books I owned, conferences I convened, rallies I attended, interviews I gave, news I heard, and websites I never even accessed. But the most disturbing part of the trial was not that the government offered my speeches, opinions, books, writings, and dreams into evidence, but that an intimidated judicial system allowed them to be admitted into evidence. That’s why we applauded the jury’s verdict. Our jurors represented the best society had to offer. Despite all of the fear-mongering and scare tactics used by the authorities, the jury acted as free people, people of conscience, able to see through Big Brother’s tactics. One hard lesson that must be learned from the trial is that political cases should have no place in a free and democratic society. But despite the long and arduous ordeal and hardships suffered by my family, I leave with no bitterness or resentment in my heart whatsoever. In fact, I’m very grateful for the opportunities and experiences afforded to me and my family in this country, and for the friendships we’ve cultivated over the decades. These are lifelong connections that could never be affected by distance. I would like to thank God for all the blessings in my life. My faith sustained me during my many months in solitary confinement and gave me comfort that justice would ultimately prevail. Our deep thanks go to the friends and supporters across the U.S., from university professors to grassroots activists, individuals and organizations, who have stood alongside us in the struggle for justice. My trial attorneys, Linda Moreno and the late Bill Moffitt, were the best advocates anyone could ask for, both inside and outside of the courtroom. Their spirit, intelligence, passion and principle were inspirational to so many. I am also grateful to Jonathan Turley and his legal team, whose tireless efforts saw the case to its conclusion. Jonathan’s commitment to justice and brilliant legal representation resulted in the government finally dropping the case. Our gratitude also goes to my immigration lawyers, Ira Kurzban and John Pratt, for the tremendous work they did in smoothing the way for this next phase of our lives. Thanks also to my children for their patience, perseverance and support during the challenges of the last decade. I am so proud of them. Finally, my wife Nahla h​as been a pillar of love, strength and resilience. She kept our family together during the most difficult times. There are no words to convey the extent of my gratitude. We look forward to the journey ahead and take with us the countless happy memories we formed during our life in the United States.

Editor's Note: WUSF is following up with the U.S. Department of Justice to confirm details. Please check back later for an update on this story. 

ORIGINAL POST 2/3/15 4:45 p.m.

WUSF has learned that Sami Al-Arian, a former USF professor who was at the center of a prolonged federal investigation into allegations he supported terrorist groups, is being deported - possibly as soon as Wednesday.

Credit www.politico.com
Sami Al-Arian with his wife, Nahla, outside the Tampa Federal Courthouse in 2005

The information comes from a person who says he heard that Al-Arian spoke briefly recently at a local Tampa mosque.

Melva Underbakke, a friend of Al-Arian, says it will be difficult to see him leave.

"I knew him before this all started," she said. "Knew him and admired him and the family was major people in the community and after his arrest, then we all became very good friends so right now I'm just very sad. I haven't gotten over that yet and maybe I won't for a while."

Al-Arian's trial ended in 2005, when a federal jury failed to find him guilty of supporting Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which is on a U.S. list of terrorist organizations. He spent a number of years on house arrest and has since been living in Virginia. Underbakke says his wife will be moving with him.

Federal officials in Virginia had wanted Arian to testify before a grand jury investigating the International Institute of Islamic Thought. Federal officials called that probe one of the nation’s largest terrorism-financing investigations, focusing on a Herndon-based network of Muslim charities, businesses and think tanks.

Al-Arian refused to testify, even though he was offered federal immunity, saying that was not part of his plea agreement. After some legal wrangling, prosecutors charged him for the refusal in 2008.

All charges against Al-Arian were dropped this past June. His deportation was a part of the plea deal he agreed to years earlier. He had pled guilty to one charge of aiding a terrorist group as part of the plea deal to avoid a retrial.

Steve Newborn is a WUSF reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.
Mark Schreiner is the assistant news director and intern coordinator for WUSF News.
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