From the speakerphone placed in the middle of Sami Al-Arian’s youngest son’s birthday party came the question: “Did he blow out all the candles?”
Al-Arian couldn’t see it for himself. The former USF professor now lives in “special housing” in a Virginia jail.
Norwegian filmmaker Line Halvorsen’s critically acclaimed documentary USA vs. Al-Arian depicts the struggle Al-Arian’s immediate family with his absence. It was shown for the first time at USF on Friday in the Phyllis P. Marshall Center. The film opens with the Al-Arian family’s recollection of the night of his arrest in February 2003 when the FBI barged into his Tampa home in the middle of the night, frightening his wife Nahla and their five children.
Al-Arian had been in the United States, living out his American dream, since the mid-’70s, when he came to pursue his education. He was a respected member of academia and “one of the hardest and best teachers I have ever had,” said a past student.
That’s why his arrest in 2003 came as such a shock to the community as well as his family. The director focused on the slow unraveling of the Al-Arian family and the sanity of Al-Arian matriarch Nahla Al-Arian, who in one scene is shown fumbling for pills to calm her stress.
It’s no wonder she’s in rough shape, having endured one hardship after another. The film documented Sami Al-Arian’s six-month-long trial in which he was indicted for aiding the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a designated terrorist organization.
The evidence that the government put together consisted of Al-Arian’s speeches, writings and personal phone conversations. The Patriot Act allowed the FBI to record more than 400,000 conversations. The film shows stacks of FedEx boxes sent by the FBI piled throughout the Al-Arian household. The boxes contained transcripts of phone calls that ranged from some highly personal in nature to more trivial ones, such as Nahla Al-Arian trying to order a “medium Bigfoot pizza,” although she was told there are only “large Bigfoot pizzas.”
Halvorsen was able to convey the difficulty Sami Al-Arian had in receiving a fair trial from our post-9/11 judicial system. In a trial that, according to President Bush, was supposed to be a critical case in the fight against terrorism, Sami Al-Arian received not a single guilty verdict. This did not stop federal Judge James Moody from pushing for a retrial and classifying Sami Al-Arian as a “master manipulator.” At the climax of the film, Nahla Al-Arian’s mood shifts from complete elation to utter disbelief when news of the possible retrial is leaked.
Al-Arian’s youngest daughter was granted a contact visit before she traveled to Egypt, where her family felt she would be able to live more peacefully. However, once again she was denied a hug from her father. Compelling events like these forced Al-Arian to decide whether he wanted to continue with the retrial or opt for a plea bargain so that he could reunite with his family.
He decided to enter a plea bargain, and Judge Moody gave him the maximum sentence. Although Sami Al-Arian was scheduled to be released in April of 2007, the court’s end of the bargain was not held up.
Following the screening of Halvorsen’s award-winning film, Al-Arian lawyer Linda Moreno offered her own commentary on the film, as well as answers for the crowd. She offered insight into the conditions that Al-Arian was now living under.
“He is treated harsher and with less respect than convicted criminals,” she said.
Al-Arian’s lawyer went back to a point in the film that showed President Bush explaining that this trial’s purpose was to “shine a light on justice.”