Al-Arian film focuses on family, not terror trial

Published May 16, 2007

TAMPA - The film USA vs. Al-Arian makes its local debut at the Tampa Theatre tonight, offering an intimate view of the stress endured by the family of Sami Al-Arian during his 2005 terrorism trial.

From its title, one might expect an in-depth look at the case against the controversial University of South Florida professor and his co-defendants. Federal prosecutors claimed they ran a terrorist cell that helped finance Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

But the film glosses over the specific charges, and pays scant attention to the evidence.

Al-Arian's family is the focus, along with a polemic against the Patriot Act, ham-handed federal prosecution and the media. "This is a political persecution. It's not a criminal prosecution," Al-Arian says.

"This is not about all of it," said Norwegian director Line Halvorsen at a screening for the press. "It's more a documentary about the family than an investigative report of Sami Al-Arian."

Al-Arian's wife, Nahla, and their five children allowed Halvorsen and her film crew access to their lives from May 2005, just before the trial, to August 2006, when he was sentenced.

The professor was arrested in 2003, and held under tight security thereafter. The toll on his children is captured vividly.

On the eve of the trial, his youngest daughter, Lama, is about to go to Egypt to stay with her grandmother to escape the strain of the trial. She packs all the things a typical preteen girl cannot live without, then heads to a final visit with her father.

"The last time I gave my dad a hug was a year ago. I finally get to see him. ... I get to touch him and talk without any glass," she says, heading into the courthouse.

She emerges looking stoic, and tells her mother, "I didn't get to hug him for you, because they wouldn't let me."

The film blends such poignant moments with television news footage and commentary from lawyers, jurors and others.

Former U.S. Attorney Paul Perez defends the case and talks about how the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks made disruption of terrorist organizations a priority.

Halvorsen interviewed Al-Arian in jail after the jury found him not guilty on some counts and couldn't agree on others.

Al-Arian repeats much of what he's said in the past - that he doesn't condone violence against civilians, but supports resistance against "a brutal military occupation" by Israel.

He does not address the charges and evidence in his trial.

Halvorsen said she agreed going into it not to ask about specifics of the case. Given the not-guilty verdicts, she saw no reason to delve into it.

Facing retrial on unresolved counts, Al-Arian opted to accept a plea bargain, and has been in jail ever since. His incarceration has been extended for refusing to testify before a grand jury.

Prosecutors never linked Al-Arian to acts of violence. Nor were they able to show that money he raised went to the PIJ to support its attacks.

Still, the trial revealed a side of him that those who knew him through USF never saw.

Al-Arian was shown to be deeply involved with the PIJ - employing its members at his Tampa think tank, even proposing changes to PIJ political strategy to its leaders. The film doesn't examine this aspect of his story.

"For me, the case is about freedom of speech," Halvorsen said. "It doesn't necessarily mean I agree with everything being said."

Morris Kennedy is the Times night city editor in Tampa. He supervised coverage of the Al-Arian trial.

Fast Facts:

If you go

USA vs. Al-Arian is at the Tampa Theatre, 711 N Franklin St., tonight. It starts at 7:30 p.m. There is a panel discussion afterward. Tickets are $8.50 per person.