Holding their Breath: Al-Arian's children wait for the jury
Dec. 2, 2005
The Chronicle of Higher Education
Sami Al-Arian's children wait for the jury to decide his fate.
By John Gravois
The day before the first real cold snap hit New York in November, Laila Al-Arian was running through the 13th floor of the Manhattan Criminal Courts Building, her black-and-hot-pink hijab a flash of color on the crowded main corridor.
She was there working on her final project for a course at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. The assignment was to find the court records of a recently adjudicated murder case — one whose victim and killer did not know each other before the crime — and then use those records to piece together a "human story" about the violent intersection of worlds.
But in the massive courthouse — where the linoleum floors of the elevators are warped from years of traffic, and the list of cases being heard that day filled nine, single-spaced pages — human stories seemed maddeningly remote.
At the moment, Laila was rushing to meet a judge who, she had been told, might be able to help her find a suitable case. She turned down a side corridor, opened the heavy door marked 1301, and entered a dingy courtroom with a black-rubber floor. Then she saw a line of jurors filing out.
The sight of them shook her mind away to the 13th floor of another courthouse, 1,000 miles to the south.
At that moment, she knew, six men and six women in Tampa, Fla., were halfway through their second day of deliberating the fate of her father, Sami Al-Arian, a former professor who now stands accused of conspiring with terrorists. The jurors had sat for five months of trial, heard more than 70 witnesses, and listened to nearly five days of closing arguments. Now their task was, she hoped, like hers — to find the human story in the crush of evidence. To her mind, the story that the prosecution wanted them to believe was purely monstrous.
Which one would they choose?
Such moments of jarring recall came often in the midst of Laila's academic work that week, and the same was true for her siblings. In the years since Mr. Al-Arian's arrest and imprisonment, in 2003, three of his four children have entered graduate school. Abdullah, the oldest, is in the second year of a Ph.D. program in Middle Eastern history at Georgetown University. Laila is at Columbia. Leena, the youngest daughter, has just started a master's program in Middle Eastern studies at the University of Chicago. All of them talk to their father on the telephone nearly every night.
For the past five months, and indeed for the past three years, public discussion of Sami Al-Arian has been dictated by the federal case against him. Issues of academic freedom have taken a back seat to grainy images of suicide bombings. But for these three graduate students, this is still a case about a professor's right to speak.
Back in Courtroom 1301, Laila spoke with the judge, who couldn't help her. Then she went to the records room and requested two files that fellow students had suggested. Sitting under a sagging bulletin board, she leafed through a couple of thin manila folders and came up with nothing. After 30 minutes, she was desperate to leave.
"I just want to get out of this building," she said, working her way past a maze of metal detectors, wires, and barricades in the lobby. "This whole building — just get me out of here."
Inside the Jury's Mind
For Laila and Abdullah, the awkward pastime of scrutinizing jurors' facial expressions during their father's trial was as irresistible as it was agonizing.
"You try to read their faces, reactions, body language, but you get to a point where you realize it's not a very easy process, and you just kind of give up," Abdullah said.
When the jury went into deliberations, he said, he had to keep his imagination in check: "I don't know exactly what's going through their minds, what the disputes are, what the debates are. There's so many scenarios going through our minds that sometimes it'll just drive you crazy if you think about all of them."
One thing that can be safely said about the jury's deliberations is that they are complicated. Sami Al-Arian's indictment lists 51 separate counts, the most prominent being four counts of conspiracy. The evidentiary time frame stretches from the late 1980s to the first years of this decade, a period during which the legal landscape — as well as Mr. Al-Arian's behavior — changed substantially.
Dates, therefore, are extremely important to the case. Most of the criminal charges against Mr. Al-Arian pertain to his association with a group called the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which was designated by the U.S. government as a terrorist organization in 1995. After that point, all transactions with the group became illegal. (However, the professor's phone conversations with members of the group ceased in about April 1994.) Statutes of limitation on conspiracy convictions are involved, as are laws that did not go on the books until after the mid-90s.
At one point during closing arguments, Cherie Krigsman, a government prosecutor, showed jurors a flow chart meant to help them determine whether Mr. Al-Arian was part of a racketeering conspiracy. The chart used text and arrows to factor the notion of criminal intent with the duration of those intentions and the dates on which certain types of activities became illegal. It looked like the instructions for filling out an obscure tax form.
In addition to the legal gymnastics, the jurors must also contend with the clashing narratives of the defense and the prosecution, which could not differ more.
According to the defense, Mr. Al-Arian is a prominent, civic-minded Palestinian-American, whose political and academic efforts on behalf of Muslims brought him into association with a spectrum of influential people — from Karl Rove to Middle East scholars to the leaders of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Mr. Al-Arian's lawyers say that group is a multifaceted organization that has long played political, social, and philanthropic roles in the West Bank and Gaza, and that its military wing, which has carried out suicide bombings, is small and separate from the rest of the organization. Mr. Al-Arian, they say, never had anything to do with that military wing.
The prosecution paints Mr. Al-Arian as the leader of a violent terrorist cell in America and a duplicitous professor whose academic enterprises at the University of South Florida, where he held a tenured post in computer engineering, have always been mere fronts for organized crime. Prosecutors describe the Palestinian Islamic Jihad as an organization dedicated only to murder and mayhem, and Mr. Al-Arian as, at times, one of its most powerful leaders. They contend that he incited terrorist bombings by publicizing successful attacks and by raising money for the widows and orphans of suicide bombers.
Given all that, few people have predicted a swift verdict. By Thanksgiving the jury had yet to reach a conclusion.
For Mr. Al-Arian's family, however, the suspense took hold right away.
On the second day of deliberations, Laila got an instant message from her brother: "Did Mom call you?" It turned out to be nothing, but the flutter of panic she felt at the computer was undeniable.
For Americans on the whole — and for Muslim Americans especially — recent history has arranged itself into what was true in the days before September 11, 2001, and what has been true since.
The Al-Arians have their own personal milestone.The date that most sharply divides their lives into the categories of "before" and "after" is February 20, 2003 — "2/20," as they refer to it — the day Mr. Al-Arian was arrested at his home, in Tampa, and indicted by the federal government.
Before that February 20, when talk-show pundits like Bill O'Reilly were Mr. Al-Arian's accusers, the scholarly community rallied behind him and defended his academic freedom. As soon as his accuser was the federal government, however, most of that support quickly evaporated.
The sheer heft of the indictment no doubt scared a lot of people off. It ran to more than 120 pages and drew heavily on nine years of secret wiretapping of Mr. Al-Arian's telephones by the FBI.
Abdullah said he understands why his father's supporters were spooked when the indictment came out. But he can't understand why they have stayed spooked — especially given that the government's case, he said, has turned out to consist almost entirely of circumstantial evidence.
"There's a difference between being initially shocked and surprised and overwhelmed," Abdullah said, "and continuing to be silent and muted for years after the fact."
The children have always asserted their father's innocence, but they have often lacked for company. "We felt we were all alone after it happened," Abdullah said.
A month after his arrest, Mr. Al-Arian was denied bail and sent into solitary confinement in Florida's Coleman Federal Penitentiary, 75 miles away from the family's home. He was limited to one phone call a month, and was denied even that for almost half a year.
According to a letter written to the Federal Bureau of Prisons by Amnesty International, he was denied any access to clocks, which kept him from observing Muslim daily prayers. The same letter said that when Mr. Al-Arian left his cell to meet with his lawyers, he was shackled hand and foot and made to transport his stacks of legal paperwork by carrying them on his back.
As the trial drew near, Mr. Al-Arian and his lawyers found out that they would not be permitted to submit evidence about the history of Israel's occupation of Palestinian territory — something they had planned as a key part of their case. They also discovered that while the government was allowed to choose and submit into evidence the contents of 200 to 300 wiretapped phone calls, the defense would not be allowed to select any calls from those nine years of FBI surveillance to build its own narrative.
Another group that has remained strangely quiet about their father's case, say Abdullah and Laila, is the circle of national Muslim leaders to which Mr. Al-Arian once belonged.
"I think the Muslim community is so afraid when they think of my father's case," Laila said. "He was the one guy who was always putting himself out there. He was speaking, making public appearances. He was always in the forefront."
Muslim leaders may be reticent, but they have been paying attention. During that first week of jury deliberations, Abdullah attended two talks by Anwar Ibrahim, a former deputy prime minister of Malaysia, who had been imprisoned for six years — on charges of sodomy — after repeatedly criticizing Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed. Since his release, in 2004, Mr. Anwar has been widely held up in the West as a paragon of "moderate Islam."
During the first talk, Abdullah took notes as Mr. Anwar joked about his home country. "It's true we have freedom of speech," he said. "What we don't have is freedom after speech."
After the second talk, Abdullah lingered in the Georgetown classroom for a few minutes, hoping to catch the visiting speaker. Just as Mr. Anwar was making his way out the door, Abdullah introduced himself.
The former statesmen not only recognized his name immediately, but asked, "Didn't they replace a juror yesterday?"
The first week of deliberations came to an end on Thursday, November 17, when the jury decided to adjourn until the week of Thanksgiving. So by Friday, the suspense had died down, if only for a while.
That afternoon Abdullah attended a Muslim prayer service for Georgetown students in a university meeting hall. Afterward, as the other students got up and chatted and put on their shoes, he kept praying for several more minutes.
By Friday, Laila had finally found a case to write about, one she described as "pretty gruesome." That evening she found herself without any work to distract her and with no plans to go out with friends. She couldn't think of anything but her father's case.
Lately she had been reading Joan Didion's new memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, an account of the author's disorientation after the sudden death of her husband. At times, when Laila was reading it, all she could think about was her mother.
"You think that when terrible things happen, there have to be clouds in the sky," she said. "It happens in the most normal circumstances. It was a normal day. It was dawn. It was, like, 5 a.m., and they were knocking on the door, banging on the door. One minute my dad's there with her, and the next minute he's gone."
These days Laila does not permit herself much "magical thinking" — Ms. Didion's term for the creative disbelief that people sometimes exercise when tragedy invades ordinary life. It just seems too wishful.
"Every now and then — it's very, very, very rare — I think of the future, and my parents living together somewhere, and not having to worry about any of this, and just living a pretty normal life, whatever normal means after all this," she said. "But I don't really get too far into it."