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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

The Price of Liberty is Eternal Vigilance

I read the comics in both local papers religiously, including the very small one that recently appeared in the Times called “Stone Soup.” I was especially grateful for last Sunday’s, as it gave me a light opening for this week’s heavy column. Two preteen girls were quarreling over which TV show to watch when they happened to catch the news about children being bombed in the Middle East. The last panel showed the sisters crying and embracing each other.

It reminded me of once when I was meeting with Nahla Al-Arian, and her two kids of similar age called to get a ruling on a similar quarrel about TV. Her daughter Leena, then a USF student, quietly took the phone, walked away from the restaurant table, and handled it. Over and over again, I saw Sami and Nahla’s older children display maturity far beyond their years, and as the twelve years of the federal government’s prosecution played out, the younger ones also became exceptionally responsible.

Hubby happened to be president of the USF chapter of United Faculty of Florida in 2001. He had been state president much earlier, which deals more with statewide and legislative issues than with individual concerns of faculty members on specific campuses. He knew that he wouldn’t really enjoy the role of representing local faculty, but the job needed to be done. Because our longtime friend Betty Castor was USF president at the time, handling grievances and contracts wasn’t as onerous as it could have been. But then Betty moved on -- and in 2001, 9-11 changed everything.

Bill O’Reilly of Fox News charged USF with being a “hotbed of terrorism,” and President Judy Genshaft refused to go on to the yellow journalist’s show to defend the university. Somehow Fox producers got hold of Hubby’s name as president of the faculty union, and he ended up debating O’Reilly three times. When they asked him to come for a fourth interview, and he told them he had enjoyed as much as he could stand.

But from the beginning, O’Reilly probably treated Hubby with more respect than he would have treated the president. When they first communicated, Hubby said in effect: “I’m a decorated Army veteran, and you are not – and if you question my patriotism, I’ll rip you.” The Fox blabbermouth limited himself to criticizing USF’s president much more than the faculty union, or even Sami Al-Arian.

Hubby was there to defend due process. Tenured professors are dismissed when their peers see them failing at their jobs, and the process goes from bottom to top: it begins with student evaluations and departmental reviews, and then moves on to sign-offs from deans, presidents, and boards of trustees. Sami’s firing did not follow this pattern: his students admired him, and his peers thought he was a valuable professor of the highly objective field of computer science. Instead his dismissal was entirely top-down, with political motivation from trustees appointed by Governor Jeb Bush. Hubby and I immediately saw the irony of that, as President George W. Bush probably would not have had that office without the aid of Sami Al-Arian.

To put that in context, you need to remember that Mazen Al-Najjar spent three years in a Manatee County jail without ever being charged with a crime. Mazen is Nahla Al Arian’s brother, and like millions of others, the siblings came to America to escape dictatorship and to use their abilities in our free institutions. Although some of my USF friends worked hard for Mazen’s civil rights, I have to admit that few of my Democratic friends did. So as a natural result, when Sami met with George W. Bush and explained his brother-in-law’s situation during the 2000 campaign, Bush expressed sympathy. Sami was grateful. Many educated immigrants thus responded positively when the USF professor and part-time imam campaigned for Dubya. I have no doubt that he influenced enough Floridians that Sami Al-Arian personally provided many of the 537 votes that decided the election in favor of Bush.

* * *

After yellow journalist Steve Emerson made a federal case of Sami’s speeches in defense of Palestine, FBI agents broke into the Al-Arian home in the dead of night. The kids were traumatized as they saw their father led away, while the feds went on to seize “evidence” – books, journals, and other scholarly materials, but not the small gun he owned at the time. That alone showed the case against Sami, who had been a legal resident of the United States since 1975, was about free speech, not about any violent “terrorism.” They not only put him in federal detention away from Tampa, but also kept changing the imprisonment sites to prevent Nahla from seeing him.

Local reporters -- who made more than one mistake in writing their stories on the recent deportation – made it appear that north Florida’s Coleman was the only federal prison where the un-convicted man was held in solitary confinement, but in fact he was sent as far away as Oklahoma. Worse, the feds often changed the venue as soon as his family met the thirty-day waiting period for visits. For Nahla, it was a nightmare repetition of the experience with her brother Mazen, who also spent years under arrest without charges, in a secret court with secret evidence that neither his family nor his lawyers could see. To this day, they never have released that information, although they have released Mazen. The most salient thing I know is that John Ashcroft, fascist of Missouri, was then in charge of the “Justice” Department.

Sami’s trial, which the Al-Arians very much wanted, was postponed until 2003. Again, you may think me excessively cynical, but I believe that the delay of the Constitution’s requirement for speedy trials was a deliberate political choice. Not having a citizens’ jury decision made it easier to picture Betty Castor, the previous USF president and the 2002 Democratic nominee for the US Senate, as somehow “soft on terrorism.” With lots of money, some of it from illegal foreign sources, Cuban-born Republican Mel Martinez, a newcomer to Florida politics, managed to make it appear that he was more patriotic than Betty, whom voters had elected to offices since 1972. Being merely a puppet with little genuine interest in government, Martinez resigned early, giving the Republican governor an opportunity to appoint another puppet, George Lemieux. You remember him, right? Anyone want to join me in cynicism here?

* * *

Aside from its threat to civil liberties, the most offensive aspect of the trial for me was its huge waste of money: federal prosecutors even bought a bus, took it down to the Everglades, blew it up, and filmed the explosion to simulate similar situations in Israel. That sort of disconnected excess may have encouraged the jury, in fact, to see how this prosecution had become persecution. The Feds threw everything they had at Sami and his “co-conspirators,” but Hillsborough jurors saw through the smoke screen and did not render a guilty verdict on any of the seventeen charges. I’ve never met one of those jurors, but I shall always salute their common sense and sound judgment.

But instead of going home with his family after the jury’s decision, officials moved Sami into another police vehicle and took him back to confinement. They talked about a hung jury and another trial; they negotiated a plea agreement for deportation, which Sami was happy to accept, but which didn’t happen; they finally ended up sending him to prisons in Virginia, where they would spend more years trying to tie him to another conspiracy that didn’t exist. Although he was sometimes depressed and although his diabetes suffered from prison food, Sami was stoic. He even wrote a book of poems titled “Conspiring with Joseph,” the biblical figure who also endured persecution.

For about a year, Nahla gave up and moved back to her native Egypt. She did so largely because of her son Ali, who by then was old enough to be a student at Tampa Bay Tech – where no one protected him from daily bullying. Youngest child Lama didn’t really want to go – I remember she packed a whole suitcase of cereal, knowing that it wouldn’t be available there – and as it turned out, the move didn’t work. Nahla rediscovered the corruption that is routine in Cairo’s economy, as well as the political repression that only grew worse during the decade, with the encouragement of our CIA. To say nothing of the sexism. And the lack of TV choices.

When she returned, Nahla went less often to the mosque Sami had founded. Because other devout Muslims feared that the Constitution’s promise of religious freedom and freedom of association might be less than genuine, many deserted her. Instead she found comfort at the United Church of Christ, a heroic institution of caring people who practice their beliefs on Fowler Avenue at the Hillsborough River. Along with brave lawyer Linda Moreno, UCC members truly have lived up to our assertions about American freedom. I should give a shout-out, too, to Meg Laughlin of the Times, who covered the complex story truthfully, while Michael Fechter of the Tribune slept with a member of the prosecution -- literally.

When the legal system moved the case to the Virginia suburbs of Washington, the family moved there and another lawyer came into their lives. Jonathan Turley is a nationally known attorney and professor at George Washington University; our daughter, a GWU Law School graduate (who, truth-be-told, took a job with the Department of Justice during this time), once introduced me to him at a Virginia restaurant. The new legal team convinced the judge to release Sami on house arrest in the custody of his eldest daughter, Laila. Eldest son Abdullah had just gotten married, and the judge did not want to burden the newlyweds with a prisoner in their home. Yet the male prosecutor had no better sense than to argue with the female judge that a woman could not be the legal guardian of a man. These guys not only were evil, they were stupid.

So for years, we visited the Al-Arians whenever we visited our daughter. Sami wore an ankle bracelet and could not leave the apartment lest an alarm sound. Their home was so small there wasn’t room for a table, but Nahla fixed wonderful food when we came. As she had when he was in prison, she did everything that needed to be done on the outside. By then their five children were grown. Lama, the youngest, will graduate from American University in the spring. Ali, who was so unhappy at Tampa Bay Tech, got scholarships to the prestigious University of Chicago. Leena continues to pursue her doctorate; she married a Canadian who specializes in weather prediction, lives in Boston, and has two daughters. Laila has become an award-winning television journalist based in Washington; although she now has two sons, she recently produced a documentary in Bangladesh. Abdullah is a professor of international studies at Georgetown University; he will be speaking here at USF later this month.

No one on earth exceeds them for true family values. They loved and supported each other under extremely difficult circumstances. I know that for Nahla, the hardest part of leaving the US is that it will be much more difficult for her to see her grandchildren, all four of them under age three. She broke into tears several times when we met for our last coffee, and I’m sure that the hole in her heart never will be repaired. I know that mine, much smaller, won’t be.

More important, we almost lost our America during those years. We still could if Fox’s fascist intolerance prevails. It is so important to remember that all of the earth’s children are family, and that none of us are anointed to be superior to others. Nahla remains an optimist, a sincere believer in everything good, and she thinks that it was God who prompted her to study the Turkish language years ago, when she had no reason to do so. And isn’t it ironic that they are in Turkey, which once was synonymous with repression? Things change. We have to pay attention. As Thomas Jefferson said, the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.

Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.

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