The Al-Arian indictment
The other shoe finally dropped on Sami Al-Arian, and it landed with the force of a collapsing facade. Until Thursday, the University of South Florida professor and his defenders had claimed for years that any attempt to curb his activities on behalf of Islamic extremist groups constituted a violation of his rights to free speech and academic independence. The massive indictment announced Thursday by Attorney General John Ashcroft ended that pretense. From this point forward, the case against Al-Arian and his co-defendants clearly rests in the context of international terrorism, not academic freedom.
Al-Arian, like every criminal defendant, deserves the presumption of innocence. However, the meticulously detailed indictment documents what should have been clear all along: Al-Arian was never, as he claimed to be, a simple academic who happened to have some controversial views about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Instead, he has been a leader in this country of efforts to raise funds, set policy and provide organizational support for Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a group responsible for some of the worst recent acts of terror in the Middle East. Whether the activities of Al-Arian and his associates constitute the serious criminal acts alleged in the federal indictment will be decided in a court of law. But even before this indictment, no fair reading of Al-Arian's activities since coming to USF could ignore his ties to Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
The seriousness of the charges against Al-Arian stand in contrast to the frivolousness of the case USF officials had attempted to make to keep him off campus for the past year. The detailed indictment also stands in contrast to the unserious investigation commissioned by USF officials in the mid-1990s, when the questionable activities of Al-Arian's self-styled campus think tank first embarrassed the university. Al-Arian now stands formally accused of leading a conspiracy that abetted terrorist attacks resulting in the deaths of dozens of innocent men, women and children. But because USF officials weren't willing to wait on hard evidence, they suspended Al-Arian based on trumped-up accusations, such as failing to inform audiences that he was not an official spokesman for the university.
As the criminal case against Al-Arian and the other defendants moves forward, it is worth reminding a jittery public that the indictment does not allege any connection with al-Qaida in general or with the Sept. 11 attacks in particular. Instead, the case revolves around activities undertaken by Al-Arian and others in support of groups responsible for terrorist attacks in the Middle East. Al-Arian has always cast those activities as innocent charitable work. The government alleges a much more intricate and sinister conspiracy.
In either case, it is clear from the indictment that Al-Arian continued those activities even after then-President Clinton issued a 1995 executive order declaring a state of emergency prohibiting the kinds of financial transactions Al-Arian appears to have been conducting with operatives of Palestinian Islamic Jihad. In fact, the indictment suggests his activities continued even after the Sept. 11 attacks and the subsequent national attention that was focused on Al-Arian after his disastrous appearance on a cable talk show. If arrogance and stupidity were crimes, Al-Arian would be in even bigger trouble.
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