WASHINGTON, Feb. 20 (UPI) -- Civil rights groups in Washington warned Thursday that the arrest of an Arab professor in Florida may have negative implications for other Arabs and Muslims living in the United States.
Professor Sami Amin Al Arian was arrested earlier Thursday along with three other Arabs for their alleged links to the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a group already declared a terrorist outfit by the State Department.
"Mere membership of an organization, in my belief, should not alone be the basis for prosecution," said Kit Gage, president of the National Coalition to Protect Political Freedom.
"Unfortunately, this government is going that way."
The indictment, unsealed in Florida on Thursday afternoon, said Jihad opposes a peaceful solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and instead encourages its supporters to carry out terrorist attacks against Israel.
The indictment also blamed Jihad for the death of more than 100 people in Israel, including two American citizens, and said Arian and other suspects arrested with him were running a Jihad sleeper cell in the United States.
If convicted, the suspects could face life imprisonment.
Commenting on Arian's arrest, Judy Genshaft, president of the University of South Florida, said she was "not particularly surprised" because "there have always been rumors that this might happen. However, it is certainly disturbing when a faculty member is arrested."
She said that after the university has had the opportunity to review the indictment, the university will "determine whether the information it contains has any relevance" to the proceedings for his removal.
Dick Beard, chairman of the USF Board of Trustees, said the indictment could "mark the beginning of the end of this issue" at the university, adding that the indictment was one more indication that university's president was right in starting the removal proceedings against the Palestinian professor.
"The arrest has many implications for Arab-Americans and American Muslims that have little do with the charges," said Helen Samhan of the Arab American Institute.
The AAI and the coalition joined two other rights groups -- the American-Arab Anti-Defamation Committee and the Council on American-Islamic Relations -- in expressing their concern over the arrests.
Addressing a joint news conference after Attorney General John Ashcroft announced the indictment in Washington, the groups emphasized the need to protect basic human rights while pursuing terrorists.
They said the charges against Arian were more than eight years old and previously the government had failed to indict him despite "active and very public ... efforts."
"This case is and has long been highly politicized," said Gage.
Laila al Qatami of the America-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee said her group was opposed to violence and suicide bombings "and should evidence come up that the suspects were involved in such acts, they should be prosecuted in a court of law."
Gage said there were people in this country "who are not Muslims but feel that the government has gone too far in targeting people from their religion."
She said she would also speak against Arian and other suspects if they used "ethnic slurs" and preached violence against Israel, "but I have not heard him say that."
The ADC said Arian had been under investigation for many years and thus far no evidence had been presented suggesting his involvement with any illegal activity.
ADC pointed out that since his appearance on the Fox News program "The O'Reilly Factor" in 2001, and given the controversy regarding attempts by the university to dismiss him in spite of his tenured status, "Arian's case has become heavily politicized."
Omar Ahmad of the Council on American-Islamic Relations said his group was "very concerned that the government would bring charges after investigating an individual for many years without offering any evidence of criminal activity."
"This action could leave the impression that Arian's arrest is based on political considerations, not legitimate national security concerns."
"A massive indictment at this late date that includes a huge array of charges, many of them using the relatively attenuated term of conspiracy, raises concerns," said Gage.
"We strongly urge that Mr. Arian as well as the other defendants be given a full and fair trial including access to all the evidence against them as the constitution requires," she added.
In a written statement, the Arab American Institute said that civil liberties organizations in America had recently raised numerous concerns with the erosion of constitutional guarantees and "the consistent pattern of profiling" witnessed since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
"Our concern is more personal, more human, springing from the seemingly continuous bombardment of the Arab American Muslim communities with multiple government initiatives that feed the general public's negative impression that we are not to be trusted as full Americans," the AAI said.
The group said that the notion that there are hundreds of terrorists and dozens of sleeper cells in this country was abhorrent to the Arabs and Muslims as it was to other members of the American society.
"We believe that law enforcement can protect our country without engaging in the violation of rights, the filing of specious charges ... on questionable ... practices that erode fundamental American freedoms."