Mitch Perry Report for 2.4.15 – The Sami Al-Arian odyssey in America ends today

WUSF Radio reported Tuesday that Sami Al-Arian is being deported to Turkey, possibly as early as today.

If accurate, this development ends a 20-year legal and political odyssey for the former University of South Florida professor, who was accused and pleaded guilty to one count of providing material support for the Palestinian Islamic Jihad in 2006.

Although being deported is generally considered a punitive measure, it was something that Al-Arian knew was going to happen about eight years ago. Frankly, it’s been a bit of an outrage, regardless of how you feel about the man, that it’s taken this long to actually happen. His deportation was delayed mainly because he was asked to testify before a federal grand jury in another case that had nothing to do with him. When he refused to do so, he was found in contempt and later indicted. But nothing ever happened with the case. Finally, after many years,  federal prosecutors dropped the case, leading up to today’s deportation.

From what is publicly known, most of that time that Al-Arian has been out of prison and living under house arrest in suburban Virginia.

The Al-Arian saga was one of the biggest stories in Tampa for years — in fact, I called it the No. 1 story of the decade in a piece I wrote back in 2009. But for some readers, it may be a case of “Sami who?” since the saga’s Tampa phase ended nearly nine years ago.

A quick recap: Al-Arian was teaching at USF  as a chemical engineering professor in the late ’80s and early ’90s when he and a few others created two Islamic think tanks on the USF campus. After journalist Steven Emerson (who was recently embarrassed after admitting that he made “totally inaccurate” statements about the Muslim community in Birmingham, England, on Fox News) reported about the think tanks, and their possible connections to Middle East terrorists on a PBS special. The most damning allegation was about a man named Ramadan Shallah — who later left the think tank to become the head of the PIJ. The documentary  made national news.

Then-USF President Betty Castor called for an investigation, which ultimately exonerated Al-Arian. In 2000 I arrived in town as a reporter and covered the detention hearings of Al-Arian’s brother-in-law, Mazen al-Najjar. Knowing little about his case, I learned in court proceedings that the feds had very little on al-Najjar. It was Al-Arian who was in their cross hairs. Al-Najjar was being detained on “secret evidence,” which critics called un-American.

Al-Najjar was released in December 2000. Everything remained status quo until the 9/11 attacks. That changed a lot of things in America and the world, and they certainly changed for Al-Arian.

He appeared on Bill O’Reilly‘s Fox News Channel show two weeks after 9/11, and while he remained mostly passive O’Reilly aggressively recited the previous allegations against him. USF was then besieged by angry calls and emails, calling for his ouster. USF announced they were suspending him with pay two days later, though it was humorous to hear that it was  because of “comments” he made on the program since he had said very little. But what people heard from O’Reilly they did not like.

USF ultimately fired Al-Arian two months later, and in February of 2003 he was arrested with three others and charged in a 50-count indictment with assisting the PIJ.

His trial finally began in June of 2005, and it did not go well for the feds. On Dec. 13, 2005, the federal jury in Tampa acquitted Al-Arian on eight of 17 counts and deadlocked on the others with 10-2 favoring acquittal.

But Al-Arian was not freed from jail. In February 2006, he admitted to one count of conspiracy to contribute services to or for the benefit of the PIJ. For his detractors, it was a literal admission of guilt, case closed. For his supporters, it was seen as a step toward establishing a specific date for his release.

That release hasn’t come until now. It will always remain a controversial case. Al-Arian has plenty of friends in Tampa who think he was railroaded. Others say the evidence is obvious, as was his pleading guilty.

He and his family will now try to resume a life in Turkey.

In other news …

Last week Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri sounded pretty darned positive about Jeff Brandes proposed bill in the Florida Senate on medical marijuana, a surprise considering his vehement opposition to Amendment 2 last year. Tuesday he said he could never support a medical pot bill that allowed people to smoke the herb versus taking it in a pill or oil form.

Marco Rubio hasn’t toned down his opposition to President Barack Obama‘s diplomatic breakthrough with Cuba. But he did seem happy at the end of a 3. 5 hour hearing on U.S. Cuban policy in Washington Tuesday, saying he it was the most extensive policy event regarding Cuba since he was elected to the Senate in 2010.

Now that same-sex marriage is legal in Florida, most people are OK with it, right? Uh, not exactly, according to a St. Pete Polls survey taken for SaintPetersBlog that was released Tuesday.

Mitch Perry

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served five years as political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. Mitch also was assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley and is a San Francisco native who has lived in Tampa since 2000. Mitch can be reached at [email protected]



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