TAMPA — Seven months after the last criminal charges were dropped against him and nearly 12 years after he was first indicted, former University of South Florida professor Sami Al-Arian has been deported to Turkey, officials said this morning.
“Sami Al Arian, the former University of South Florida professor convicted of aiding the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a foreign terrorist organization, was removed from the United States Wednesday night by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Enforcement and Removal Operations via a commercial flight from Washington Dulles International Airport in Fairfax, Virginia,” the federal government said in a statement.
His former attorney Jonathan Turley released a statement from Al-Arian: “After 40 years, my time in the U.S. has come to an end,” it said in part.
After describing his views on what happened in his case and the Palestinian struggle, he added, “But despite the long and arduous ordeal and hardships suffered by my family, I leave with no bitterness or resentment in my heart whatsoever. In fact, I’m very grateful for the opportunities and experiences afforded to me and my family in this country, and for the friendships we’ve cultivated over the decades. These are lifelong connections that could never be affected by distance.”
He thanked God, his lawyers, his supporters and his family, concluding, “We look forward to the journey ahead and take with us the countless happy memories we formed during our life in the United States.”
A federal jury in Tampa failed to convict Al-Arian on any charge following a six-month-long trial in 2005 in which he was accused of terrorism for being a leader in the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, designated by the United States to be a terrorist organization. Jurors acquitted him on eight charges and deadlocked on nine others. Al-Arian ended up taking a plea bargain, admitting to a reduced charge of conspiring to help a terrorist organization by providing assistance to the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. He agreed to be deported and was sentenced in 2006 to 57 months in federal prison.
After his release from prison, Al-Arian remained in the U.S. after federal prosecutors in Virginia tried to coerce his cooperation into an investigation into alleged terrorist financing by charities there.
During the Tampa trial, the government presented evidence that Al-Arian’s think tank, World and Islam Studies Enterprise, received funding from the International Institute of Islamic Thought, based in Herndon, Va. The institute’s offices were raided in 2002 as part of the investigation into World and Islam Studies Enterprise.
Al-Arian was charged with contempt when he refused to testify before a Virginia grand jury on the grounds that his plea agreement provided he didn’t have to cooperate with the government. Judges and prosecutors disagreed with that, and the case languished for years, finally ending last summer when prosecutors dropped their case after rulings in which a judge criticized their conduct.
Turley said Al-Arian, 57, and his wife, Nahla, left the U.S. late Wednesday night on a 10-hour flight to Turkey. Turley wrote on his blog that the case “raised troubling due process, academic freedom, and free speech issues,” adding, “He is a Palestinian-American civil rights activist who was also a computer engineering professor at University of South Florida (USF). He had a successful academic career at USF and held permanent resident status since March 1989. He applied for U.S. citizenship and even campaigned for George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential election.”
Mel Underbakke, a friend of the family, said she saw Al-Arian last week at a sendoff at a mosque in Falls Church, Va. “The room was packed,” she said, describing the gathering of people who paid tribute to Al-Arian.
“The comment from everybody was what a loss this was,” she said. “Another person’s comment was everything that’s happened to Sami, hasn’t changed him at all. I think that’s pretty amazing. He’s had a lot of injustice heaped upon him and it hasn’t changed him at all.”
Underbakke said she doesn’t think Al-Arian has any friends or contacts in Turkey. His family is in Egypt, she said, but “There’s a lot of turmoil in Egypt now.”
“I don’t think they know what’s going to happen,” she said. “They have a little control in their lives. ... As far as I know, they plan to stay awhile.”