Sami Al-Arian: Detainee in fight for rights
By Paul Lomartire, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 3, 2003
TAMPA -- In a high-security federal prison north of Tampa, Sami Al-Arian spends 23 hours of every day locked in a 7-by-13-foot cell. No watch. No clock. No window through which to see daylight.
One hour a day, five days a week, he and his cellmate get to walk around in a steel cage. That is his only recreation.
He cannot leave his cell without being shackled and chained. When his family visits, he cannot touch them. They sit on opposite sides of a plastic window and talk over a phone. When his lawyer visits, the shackled Al-Arian walks bent-over, his hands chained behind him, and balances his legal documents on his back. The guards won't carry them.
After four months in such conditions, including a hunger strike and a month in solitary confinement, he has lost 45 pounds.
He has never been convicted of a crime. But he is charged with a very big one.
The former University of South Florida economics professor is accused of being the American boss for Islamic Jihad, a Palestinian terrorist group believed responsible for numerous suicide bombings and the deaths of more than 100 people in Israel and the adjacent occupied territories. In the post-Sept. 11 climate, that charge isn't likely to win him much sympathy in security-conscious America.
Champion for his cause
But now Al-Arian has found a champion -- at least for improving his prison living conditions.
In a July 17 letter to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Amnesty International, the respected international human rights monitor, denounced Al-Arian's detention as "gratuitously punitive."
In a three-page letter to Kathleen Hawk Sawyer, the bureau director, Amnesty International cited the 23-hour lockdown, strip searches, use of chains and shackles, severely limited recreation, lack of access to any religious service and denial of a watch or clock in a windowless cell where the artificial light is never turned off.
Al-Arian shares the small cell with co-defendant Sameeh Hammoudeh.
Concludes Amnesty: "The prolonged cellular confinement, lack of exercise, frequent shackling and other deprivations imposed on Dr. Al-Arian are inconsistent with international standards and treaties which require that all persons deprived of their liberty must be treated humanely with respect for their inherent human dignity."
Amnesty International is better known for drawing attention to torture, rat-hole prison conditions and human rights abuses in Third World countries.
But in this case, "We're particularly concerned because he's a pretrial detainee," says Angela Wright, an Amnesty researcher in London.
"Certainly if he remains in those conditions, we will continue to raise concerns," Wright says.
The Bureau of Prisons denies any mistreatment.
"We treat all inmates in a fair and consistent manner," says Traci Billingsley, public information officer for the bureau in Washington. For specifics, she suggested, "you'd have to go to the Justice Department."
A Justice Department official who has read the Amnesty letter agreed to comment only if allowed to remain unnamed: "Like all people detained by the U.S. Marshal's Service or the Bureau of Prisons, Mr. Al-Arian is provided with all the protections and services required by law and regulation."
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