WASHINGTON – A wife and five children sit around a dinner table,barely speaking. Picking at his food is the youngest son,12,trying to hide his tearful face from his family. The family's stress and tension,which has built throughout the documentary film,has become palpable to the audience.
The family members' lives have been consumed by the trial of their husband and father,a Palestinian born in Kuwait who was charged with aiding the terrorist group Palestinian Islamic Jihad. During individual interviews,family members expressed their frustration over what they see as an unjust trial.
The sympathetic documentary “USA vs. Al-Arian” is about computer science professor Sami Al-Arian's almost five-year fight against terrorism charges. The film,which has received several film festival awards,premiered in Washington at the AMC Loews Uptown 1 Theater Wednesday.
Al-Arian came to the U.S. in 1975. He lived in Hillsborough County,Fla.,and taught at the University of South Florida before his arrest in February 2003. His arrest and case received national media attention.
The film follows Al-Arian's wife and five children during his six-month trial and includes interviews with the prosecution and defense attorneys,jurors,law professors and journalists.
At the one-night showing,sponsored by the Council on American-Islamic Relations,the 850-seat theater was packed. The Norwegian film,directed by Line Halvorsen,was widely released in several countries,but it has been shown only at film festivals and special screenings in the U.S. Halvorsen hasn't found a television network or DVD distributor here.
“The story at first glance may feel like it doesn't concern you,” Halvorsen told the audience before the screening. “But on second look,it's an important story to listen to,to discuss and act upon.”
A discussion following the film included Al-Arian's oldest son,Abdullah; Halvorsen; Al-Arian's attorney,Linda Moreno,and law professors Jonathan Turley of George Washington University and David Cole of Georgetown University.
Al-Arian was jailed for 30 months before his trial,which ended in December 2005 with his acquittal on the eight most serious charges. The jury deadlocked on nine others.
The evidence against Al-Arian included wiretapped conversations with Palestinian Islamic Jihad leaders about strategy,financial management and structure of the group. His think tank,World and Islam Studies Enterprise,which he co-founded,received funding from the Palestinian Islamic Jihad in the early 1990s.
But these associations occurred before the group was listed as a foreign terrorism organization by the U.S.
When the prosecution decided to retry the case,Al-Arian pleaded guilty to one count of conspiring to aid the Palestinian Islamic Jihad in exchange for the minimum jail time of seven months followed by deportation.
Instead,a judge sentenced Al-Arian to the maximum,18 months. The film ends with the family and defense attorney's disbelief and outrage over that ruling.
“In the last scene,I talk about the whole thing ending in 11 months,” Abdullah Al-Arian said in the discussion. “How nice that would have been. But there is no end in sight.”
Moreno and Turley told the Washington audience what has happened since the film was finished.
In November 2006,Al-Arian was found guilty of civil contempt for not testifying before a grand jury. He remains in jail and could serve up to 18 months in addition to the sentence in the conspiracy case.
Audience members wanted to know what they could do to help. Cole said citizens can build political support for Al-Arian.
“This case and the Guantanamo debate shows that the U.S. can lock humans up indefinitely without charges because they are foreign nationals,” Cole said. “It's a double standard that we would not tolerate if taken against us.”
Al-Arian's family is trying to find a country that will accept him after his deportation.
“It's a sad day when you have to leave the U.S. to be free,” Abdullah Al-Arian said,drawing applause from the crowd.