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Gaunt Al-Arian shocks family

By MEG LAUGHLIN
Published March 20, 2007


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Sami Al-Arian has been on a hunger strike for 58 days to protest being held beyond his prison sentence. On a water-only diet, he has lost 53 pounds. The former University of South Florida professor can no longer walk, speaks in a whisper and trembles constantly because of low body temperature, said family members who visited him last weekend at a federal medical prison in Butner, N.C.

"We were stunned when we saw him. His deterioration is shocking," said Al-Arian's son, Abdullah, 26.

Al-Arian, 49, is bedridden in an isolation cell. A nurse checks on him twice a day, and a videocamera records his every move, say officials from the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Three hot meals are placed in his cell every day, for two hours at a time. Then they are removed, untouched.

"We will not let him die. We will force feed him before that happens," said Nikki Credic of the U.S. Marshals Service.

But Al-Arian's family is calling his condition dire.

"We are extremely worried for his life," said his wife, Nahla.

Al-Arian went on the strike Jan. 22 to protest being held in jail beyond his sentence because he refused to testify before a Virginia grand jury.

In May he pleaded guilty, as part of a plea agreement, to helping associates of a terrorist group with nonviolent activities. The plea agreement came after a jury acquitted Al-Arian of eight terrorism-related charges and deadlocked on nine lesser counts.

While no explicit language was written into the plea agreement about Al-Arian's exemption from testimony before a grand jury in Virginia, federal prosecutors in Tampa agreed with defense attorneys that Al-Arian would not have to testify in Virginia. That verbal agreement was recorded in court transcripts. Seven months later, he was transferred to a Virginia jail and ordered to testify.

Al-Arian, who is 6 feet tall, weighed 202 pounds when the hunger strike began.

Meg Laughlin can be reached at mlaughlin@sptimes.com.

[Last modified March 20, 2007, 02:42:43]


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