updated 3/20/2007 10:25:44 PM ET 2007-03-21T02:25:44

A Palestinian former university professor is "very, very weak" and cold after spending two months on a hunger strike in a federal prison that his family believes is threatening his life, his wife said Tuesday.

Sami al-Arian, 49, a Palestinian who formerly taught computer science at the University of South Florida, stopped eating Jan. 22 to protest a judge's decision to hold him indefinitely after he refused to testify before a Virginia grand jury.

Since then, al-Arian has lost 54 pounds, said his wife Nahla al-Arian, who has visited her husband at the Federal Medical Facility in Butner, North Carolina, most recently on Monday.

"When I first saw him on Saturday, I cried so hard because I couldn't believe he could look like this, no muscles, nothing," she said. "He's very weak, very, very weak. He lost a lot of weight. He was cold all the time, shivering, because his body temperature is very low."

Federal prison authorities declined to discuss al-Arian's health condition.

Authorities at the federal facility about 30 miles north of Raleigh have told Sami al-Arian they will force-feed him if his condition worsens, his lawyer said Tuesday, but his wife said that has not occurred.

Down from 203 pounds
When al-Arian began his water-only diet he weighed 203 pounds, and now weighs 149 pounds, she said.

Sami al-Arian's family fears for his life, said Nahla al-Arian, and is trying to convince him to stop the hunger strike. He has so far refused.

"We need him, we need his love, we need his presence in our lives. Even if he were in jail we still need him," Nahla al-Arian said.

During a six-month trial in 2005, prosecutors labeled al-Arian as a leader of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which the United States calls a foreign terrorist organization. The trial ended in an acquittal on some counts and a hung jury on others.

But in a plea bargain last April, al-Arian admitted he conspired to aid individuals associated with Palestinian Islamic Jihad and was sentenced to nearly five years in prison, although he received credit for the time he had already served. Al-Arian and his lawyers contend the plea deal also exempts him from testifying before the Alexandria, Virginia, grand jury, which is investigating a cluster of Islamic charities in northern Virginia.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in Richmond, Virginia, is expected to review the judge's decision to hold al-Arian in civil contempt this week, his wife said.

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