It was one of the more visible cases after 9/11. Then-U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft personally announced the indictment against University of South Florida professor Sami Al-Arian and accused him of being an officer in Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a designated terrorist organization. It was considered an early test of the government's use of the Patriot Act. But the government was embarrassed when Al-Arian was acquitted on the more serious charges against him. For filmmaker and former Polk County resident Line Halvorsen, what began as a story about the ordeal of Al-Arian's family became a story about American justice in the wake of 9/11.
"When we started, I didn't know what would come up, what evidence the government had. I was really shocked at how little evidence they had. What also shocked me was his treatment after the trial. He had nothing to do with violence, and still they keep him in solitary confinement," she said.
Halvorsen's documentary, "USA vs Al-Arian," will be shown at the Tampa Theatre at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday. The film has already been seen on the national TV networks of Sweden, Denmark and Halvorsen's native Norway. It was shown in the United States at the New Orleans International Human Rights Film Festival, where it won the jury prize for best film three weeks ago.
The screening in Tampa will be the first time it has been shown publicly in the city where Al-Arian's trial took place in U.S. District Court. Halvorsen (whose first name is pronounced "lee-na"), will be in Tampa for the event and will participate in a panel discussion after the film that will include Al-Arian's defense attorney, Linda Moreno; a member of the jury; and a representative of the Al-Arian family.
Halvorsen lived in Polk County from 2003 to 2006. During that time, she completed "A Stone's Throw Away," a documentary about three teenage boys living in a Palestinian refugee camp. Speaking by phone from Oslo, Norway, where she now lives, Halvorsen said she had not been interested in the Al-Arian case until she met Sami Al-Arian's wife, Nahla, at a screening of "A Stone's Throw Away" in Tampa in 2004.
"I realized there was an opportunity to follow this from the inside. I asked the family if I could follow them through the trial," she said.
Nahla Al-Arian said by phone from Tampa she agreed to Halvorsen's request because she thought "A Stone's Throw Away" was a fair portrait of the Palestinian boys' situation.
"I felt I could trust her. Also, she's a woman like me, and she understands how a woman feels," she said.
Al-Arian was a professor of computer science at USF and founder of an Islamic studies think tank affiliated with the school. He was arrested in 2003 and faced numerous charges related to raising money for Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which has claimed responsibility for attacks against Israel.
In December 2005, after a six-month trial, a jury acquitted Al-Arian of eight of 17 charges, and the jury deadlocked on the others. A few months later, when the government stated it would retry Al-Arian on the deadlocked charges, he agreed to plead guilty to one count of assisting an associate of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, with prosecutors stipulating there were no victims of violence. Judge James Moody sentenced Al-Arian to 57 months, including time served. He was scheduled to be released from prison last month and deported, but in November a federal court in Alexandria, Va., cited Al-Arian for contempt of court for his refusal to testify in a case against an Islamic think tank in Virginia, and he was sentenced to 18 months in that case. He is currently serving that sentence in Virginia and could be imprisoned until November 2008.
Parts of "USA vs Al-Arian" were difficult to make, Halvorsen said. The FBI did not talk to her about the case. Filming is not allowed inside federal courts, so Halvorsen and her crew used graphic sequences with actors' voices to depict parts of the trial. She was the only person allowed to interview Al-Arian inside prison, but access was barred after that as Al-Arian was moved to different prisons, for security reasons, Halvorsen was told.
"I'm not sure whose security - my security, his security?" she said.
The film has been accused of bias, and Halvorsen agreed it is "one-sided" in that it portrays the story through the eyes of Al-Arian's family, but U.S. District Attorney Paul Perez is given "lots of speaking time" in the film, she said, and insisted it is "not biased on the facts."
In a 1988 speech, Al-Arian was taped making inflammatory statements, including "Death to Israel." Halvorsen said she asks Al-Arian about those remarks in the film.
"He explains what he meant by the statements. But a 30-second snippet does not justify years of prison and solitary confinement," she said.
The screening at the Tampa Theatre was arranged by four organizations, including a local chapter of Amnesty International, radio station WMNF 88.5 FM and the Tampa chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations. Ahmed Bedier, executive director of the council's Tampa chapter, said he has seen Halvorsen's film and was impressed.
"We're hoping this will show people the impact on families when they face such a huge trial, especially Muslims, post-9/11, when accusations of terrorism can ruin a person, even if he's acquitted," he said. "It shows the importance of the Constitution and rules of law and how important it is to stick to that."
Nahla Al-Arian said she generally approved of Halvorsen's film. She is thinking of moving away from Tampa because her two youngest children are "emotionally exhausted," she said.
"I hope people will see that when the government targets a person, it doesn't destroy his life alone but the people around him - his wife, his children," she said.
Halvorsen said in her view, Al-Arian was a scapegoat.
"It shows the extent the American government is willing to go to make a point. They want to have something to show for the so-called war on terror," she said. "In Europe, they really look up to the States. The U.S. is a beacon of democracy and free speech. If the U.S. starts to get away with this, what's going to happen to the rest of the world?"