A recent article in American Muslim magazine attempts to burnish the image of Sami Al-Arian, the former University of South Florida professor who last year pleaded guilty to assisting the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terrorist group. It is but the latest example of the American Islamic community asserting that terrorist operatives like Al-Arian, who is currently awaiting his deportation in a Virginia jail, are blameless victims of prosecutors run amok.
The article overflows with sympathy for Al-Arian. Quoting a friend's question to Al-Arian, the author, Sarah Shields, writes: “Has anyone told you that you look like Gandhi?” U.S. District Judge James Moody had a very different impression of Al-Arian when he sentenced him to 57 months in prison last May. Pointing out that Al-Arian had made no effort to prevent terrorist attacks carried out by Islamic Jihad, the Judge Moody observed, “You lifted not one finger. To the contrary, you laughed when you heard of the bombings.”
Repulsed by Al-Arian’s attempt to portray himself as an American patriot, Judge Moody called him a "master manipulator," contrasting Al-Arian’s purported appreciation of the U.S. criminal justice system with his references to the America as “the Great Satan” in surveillance tapes disclosed at trial. Which of Al-Arian’s statements drew the judge’s ire? They were the same ones quoted in the American Muslim piece to support the portrayal of Al-Arian as a martyr:
This process, your Honor, affirmed my belief in the true meaning of a democratic society, in which the independence of the judiciary, the integrity of the jury system, and the system of checks and balances are upheld, despite intense political and public pressures....It’s also my belief that an impartial and conscientious jury, as well as principled judicial rulings that uphold the values of the constitution, are the real vehicles that win the hearts and minds of people across the globe, especially in the Arab and Muslim world.
Shields disingenuously fails to mention the judge’s reaction to these very words, and his response to Al-Arian’s characterization of himself as a philanthropist: "The evidence was clear in this case that you were a leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad." Instead, she compares Al-Arian to Gandhi, casting him as the victim of perfidious persecutors.
These persecutors include veteran prosecutor Gordon Kromberg, who Shields names in order to suggest that his role in Al-Arian’s continued incarceration in Virginia is somehow motivated by anti-Muslim bias. Why? Because Kromberg succeeded in having Al-Arian held in contempt of court for refusing to testify before the grand jury. Shields writes,
…it is the government that has contempt for the legal system Professor Al-Arian has relied upon and admired for decades. Instead of respecting the plea agreement, Mr. Kromberg referred to it as a “bonanza.” Despite having been found guilty of nothing by a U.S. court, Judge Moody and Mr. Kromberg persist in their belief in Dr. Al-Arian’s culpability. It appears that Mr. Kromberg’s attitude is based in part on Sami Al-Arian’s religion.
In reality, Kromberg did what any capable law enforcement professional would have done. He held a criminal -- in this case Al-Arian -- to the to the letter of the law. Religion has nothing to do with it. But while the criticism of Kromberg’s actions are groundless in this instance, they do raise a worthwhile question: How skeptical should a prosecutor be of Muslim civil rights organizations?
Consider the case of Sabri Benkahla, who was one of two defendants acquitted in Kromberg’s prosecution of a dozen Muslim men who participated in what the government called a "Virginia jihad network" that used paintball games in the Virginia woods in 2000 and 2001 as a means to train for holy war around the globe. Benkahla’s acquittal resulted from his testimony at trial, in which he denied a number of the allegations. The problem was that Benkahla’s testimony conflicted with other evidence the government had uncovered. Kromberg called Benkahla before the grand jury, where he repeated his testimony. On Monday, February 5, 2007, Benkahla was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice.
Kromberg has had considerable experience dealing with such characters since 9/11. He obtained the conviction of Sheik Ali Al-Timimi, who used his religious position in Virginia to urge his adherents to donate their bodies to Islamic violence. Since then, Kromberg has suffered the accusations of Al-Timimi's lawyer, Jonathan Turley, that the prosecution was motivated by religious bias. At a recent debate about the Al-Timimi case at George Washington University Law School, Turley complained that Al-Timimi is referred to as “sheik,” arguing that it is an example of abusive prosecutors trying to promote prejudice against Muslims for an unfair advantage. The fact that Al-Timimi’s activities occurred in the context of a religious meeting, for Professor Turley, means that they must be immune from scrutiny, even if they caused several young men to travel to Kashmir to shoot weapons at Indian soldiers, at a time when the U.S. needs to prevent the export of geopolitical violence from its territory.
Or consider the case of James Ujaama, a promising African-American activist who was lauded for his community activities in Seattle. In 2002, he was arrested while apparently on his way to London to help Britain’s hook-handed radical Abu Hamza recruit jihadists. Transported to Virginia, Ujaama found himself in court against Kromberg. He claimed that it was all a case of mistaken identity, and that Kromberg was lying to keep Ujaama in jail, where he had to suffer such indignities as being taunted by other inmates as "Bin Laden boy." Kromberg suggested to the court that it should be skeptical of Ujaama's claims.
Taken back to Washington state to stand trial for his role in trying to help Al Qaida establish a jihad training camp in Oregon, Ujaama cut a deal, which allowed him to be released from prison at a young enough age to resume a productive career. How did Ujaama respond to this generosity? Following a scuffle with police in December, he was picked up in Belize traveling under a false passport. His arrest in Belize was based on information provided by Interpol. Ujaama was almost certainly on his way to some Islamic hotspot to join the jihad. Perhaps he was going to Somalia to assist Islamic fighters battling Ethiopian troops, or to Afghanistan. On February 1, 2007, Ujaama was sentenced to a two-year prison sentence for violating the terms of his supervised release. In the words of the judge who sentenced him, Ujaama “violated the trust I put in you." "I'm very, very sorry," Ujaama replied. His lawyer, Peter Offenbecher, told the court that Ujaama "alone is the person who made the bad choices, and he will accept the consequences."
The problem is that this sounds an awful lot like Sami Al-Arian last May. Now, less than a year later, he is giving interviews suggesting that he was neither guilty nor sorry, and instead blaming his predicament on committed public servants like Gordon Kromberg.
Here is the truth about Al-Arian, which we are not likely to hear from his apologists: he stands convicted of being an operative for a Palestinian terrorist organization. Following a six-month trial where the jury failed to convict him of being a murderer, Al-Arian was faced with the prospect of a tight prosecution focusing solely on his role as a U.S.-based terrorist financier.
He and his attorneys realized that they could not likely defend against these charges, given the surveillance tapes. The fact that he could claim to be a legitimate philanthropist all these years, as Al-Arian knew, was the product of some archaic information-sharing rules that prevented law enforcement from fully understanding what he was up to. Those days are over.
The contrast between Al-Arian’s public face and his secret role in financially supporting overseas violence – which so enraged Judge Moody last May - could no longer be concealed. His lawyer, in fact, acknowledged Al-Arian’s role in the Palestinian Islamic Jihad during the trial, arguing that he had no viable choice. He pleaded guilty. This deal had an obvious attraction to Al-Arian. His plea agreement in Florida meant that his deception in the 1990s, which included media support from the St. Peterburg Times and parts of the United States government that embraced him, had been redressed. He could no longer be prosecuted for that conduct.
However, a person as connected as Al-Arian has information that will allow our nation’s law enforcers to discern who else is out there living a lie, and that is what interests Kromberg and his colleagues. It is true that Al-Arian has no obligation to cooperate with his accusers. However, it is also true that the grand jury has a right to all non-privileged information pertinent to its inquiries, and that the government can compel this information through a grant of immunity, which Al-Arian now enjoys. If Al-Arian persists in refusing to provide that information, following the court ruling that he has no right to refuse based on the Fifth Amendment, the remedy is more time in prison, until he sees the light.
Is this not what we want of our nation’s law enforcers? The prosecution, it turns out, was absolutely right in being skeptical of the claims of Benkahla, Ujaama and Al-Timimi. The American public should give him the benefit of the doubt in his efforts to gain the truth in the mind of Sami Al-Arian, who is cynically trying to manipulate the justice system while claiming to revere it.
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