Al-Arian documentary stirs lingering emotions

Supporters of Sami Al-Arian say he wasn't treated fairly.

Published May 17, 2007

TAMPA -- More than a year after the terrorism trial of Sami Al-Arian, the case still stirs strong emotions.

Those feelings bubbled up again Wednesday with the showing of a new documentary about the case, USA vs. Al-Arian.

Just one block from the federal courthouse where the controversial case unfolded, Al-Arian's wife, Nahla, stood outside the Tampa Theatre greeting people lined up to see the film.

Supporters voiced encouragement while friends embraced her and kissed her on the cheek.

"I want people to look into the life of a family that was persecuted," she said. "The government didn't really have a case. They destroyed our lives over nothing."

A few feet away, a man wearing a "Global War on Terrorism" baseball cap hoisted a sign that read "Professor Sami Al-Arian. Purveyor of hate. Admitted terrorist."

But the majority of the more than 1,200 people who bought tickets to the 90-minute documentary were unabashed Al-Arian supporters.

"I'm here because the whole saga has affected us all very personally," said Pilar Saad, a longtime friend of the Al-Arian family who had seen an advance copy of the film. "The movie showed the impact on civil rights issues that people didn't see during the trial."

The event was organized by the Tampa chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Amnesty International and the Friends of Human Rights.

The film follows the Al-Arians and their five children from May 2005, just before the trial, to the August 2006 sentencing.

Prosecutors accused the former University of South Florida professor of being a leader of the terrorist group Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

Following a six month trial, he was acquitted of eight counts of links to terrorism last year, while a jury deadlocked on nine others. He pleaded guilty to one count of providing nonviolent aid to associates of the PIJ and imprisoned.

The movie was directed by Norwegian filmmaker Line Halvorsen. She doesn't try to disguise her sympathies for Al-Arian and his family.

"He's a man of principle, " Halvorsen told the crowd during a brief introduction. "He fights for what he believes in and he's not afraid to speak his mind."

The audience cheered when the not-guilty verdicts were read. Some laughed derisively at the comments of U.S. Attorney Paul Perez, who defended his office's decision to prosecute Al-Arian.

After the movie, several of the trial's key players gathered for a panel discussion.

Al-Arian defense attorney Linda Moreno said she was still disappointed by the decision of U.S. District Judge James Moody to sentence her client to 57 months in prison.

"What we say is the judge had no right to sentence Dr. Al-Arian for conduct that was never attributed to him," Moreno said.

Ron, a member of the Al-Arian jury who does not disclose his last name, said there were many heated discussions during deliberations. But in the end, they agreed that prosecutors failed to prove their case, he said.

"There was no evidence," Ron said. "There simply wasn't. It wasn't that it was weak. It wasn't that it was poorly constructed. There was nothing there."

Carrie Weimar can be reached at (813) 226-3416 or cweimar@sptimes.com.