A Fair Trial?


In a country that holds up the ideals of equality and justice for all, the case against Sami Al-Arian has been strange from the outset, beginning at the bond hearing. Dr. Al-Arian’s defense lawyers presented a strong case with many witnesses attesting to his good character. They also showed that he was not a flight risk, since he has no passport or travel documents of any kind, and he was certainly not dangerous to the community where he has lived for almost twenty years.

The government, on the other hand, based their arguments on the assumption that accusations are the same thing as evidence. In response to the claim that there was no evidence against Dr. Al-Arian, Cherie Krigsman proclaimed, “You want evidence? Here’s the evidence!” as she held up the indictment (read “accusation”). Although most of us would probably agree that an accusation is not the same thing as evidence, the judge sided with the government, and Dr. Al-Arian remained in jail. Even though errors in the indictment were soon discovered, including the misidentification of one of the key people, Dr. Al-Arian remained in jail. And this was just the beginning.

Traditionally, in the United States, the accused are given a speedy trial – as is guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. Dr. Al-Arian did not waive this right; however, the government stated that they would need at least two years to prepare their case (in spite of the ten years that had already been devoted to the case). Again, the judge took the side of the government and so Dr. Al-Arian went to jail for over two years as he waited for his trial to begin.

And this was no ordinary jail. Dr. Al-Arian was soon moved to the maximum-security section of the Federal Penitentiary in Coleman, Florida, where he and co-defendant Sameeh Hammoudeh were the only pre-trial detainees. Although they had not been tried, they were kept under extremely harsh conditions where access to lawyers, telephones, and even pencils was severely limited.

Traditionally lawyers have unlimited access to their clients, and so his lawyers protested these conditions, saying that preparing a defense was impossible, and asked that he be moved closer to Tampa and put in a less restrictive environment. Hearings were held, but Dr. Al-Arian was not allowed to attend, and no changes were made. He remained at Coleman most of the time until shortly before the trial began.

Traditionally, the accused and their lawyers have access to all the evidence being used against them, but not in this case. In particular, Moffitt questioned why the prosecution had not released evidence which they had had since 1995. Much of the evidence was not given to the defense until shortly before the trial.

As the trial date neared, jury selection commenced with questionnaires, which were mailed to the prospects. It soon became apparent that there was a high degree of bias in the Tampa area, and yet the trial was not moved to a more neutral location. And as the trial was underway, bias again appeared when two jurors reported to the judge that one of their peers was making frequent prejudicial comments to other jurors, and yet this juror was left to continue making comments until the end, when finally he was moved to the alternate list. And most recently, an unscientific poll about the case (conducted by the Tampa Tribune) found its way into the jury room. As yet, no decision about granting a mistrial has been made.

Another aspect of the unfairness of this trial related to the type of evidence that was admitted. The government was allowed to bring Israeli witnesses to testify about bombings in Israel and show videotapes of the exploded buses, even though prosecutors agreed that the defendants had nothing to do with the events, nor did they have any foreknowledge of the events.

And so of course you would expect that evidence about the situation in Palestine surrounding these events would also be allowed, but no, it was not.

Accusations or Evidence?

And during the trial, the government continued its attempts to pass accusations off as evidence – even though their own witnesses refuted these accusations. Some things that were proven to me by the government’s own witnesses follow:

Dr. Al-Arian is a highly respected scholar who strives to educate people.

He is concerned about the plight of his people in Palestine and has not abandoned them.

The defendants all were active in providing for needy people in Palestine, both Muslims and Jews.

The Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) had a militant branch that was completely separate for the charitable branch.

Dr. Al- Arian separated himself from the PIJ when decisions were made to become violent.

Dr. Al-Arian was a very public person, concerned with educating people.

None of the defendants had foreknowledge of any terrorist acts.

None of the defendants have been connected to any crimes.

Closing Arguments – “Trust Me”

The prosecutor’s case has been very confusing, not to mention mind numbing and both sides agreed that there is no direct evidence linking the defendants to any crimes- it is all circumstantial. To alleviate the confusion, Prosecutor Zitek advised the jury to start with the assumption that there was a secret PIJ cell in Tampa and everything will fall into place. (Trust me. He’s guilty??) Since there is no evidence, this appears to be a matter of faith. Once jurors have made the assumption of guilt, they can follow Krigman’s directions to “use their common sense” and “connect the dots”.

Now the fate of Dr. Al-Arian is in the hands of the jury. Will they follow the advice of the prosecutors, using “common sense” and having faith in the government to tell them the truth? Or will they be fair, look at the evidence and let the evidence decide the case? My faith is in the jury, who I believe will base their decision on facts and not prejudice.

Melva Underbakke [email protected]

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