Film review: “USA vs Al-Arian”

A still from Line Halvorsen’s documentary USA vs Al-Arian.

In February 2003, the FBI raided the home of University of South Florida professor Sami Al-Arian. Arrested in front of his wife and children, Al-Arian was charged with 17 counts related to terrorism. In an unusual move, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft called a press conference to announce Al-Arian’s arrest, stating Al-Arian was the leader of the North American branch of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a designated terrorist organization, and also the secretary of the entire international organization.

Through an artfully edited array of talking heads, archival and news footage, court transcripts and family interviews director Line Halvorsen, in the documentary film USA vs Al-Arian, tells not just the story of Sami Al-Arian, but of plight of the Palestinians and of the erosion of civil liberties in the post-9/11 United States.

Beginning with a recounting of the February raid by Al-Arian’s wife and children, Halvorsen takes us into the world of the Al-Arian family. Through the anguish, the joy and the mundane, viewers are given amazing access to the ordeals faced by a family caught in the midst of one of the most high-profile terrorism trials since 9/11.

After being introduced to the family and the case, the film follows the Al-Arians through the six-month trial and its aftermath. We see them deal with sensationalist media coverage, an outrageously-fortified courthouse, and a trial where the prosecution brings in dozens of Israelis to recount unrelated suicide bombings, but the defense is not allowed to mention Israel’s military occupation. We also see the strain on the family — a father forced to sing “Happy Birthday” to his son via speakerphone, a daughter who hasn’t hugged her dad in a year, and a wife struggling to with her own emotions while trying to provide support for her husband and five children.

The climax is reached when the family gets the phone call that the verdict will be read in ten minutes. Rushing to the courthouse, they arrive in time to hear “not guilty” eight times, and learn that the jury has deadlocked 10-2 in favor of acquittal on the remaining nine counts. It would seem Al-Arian has won without his lawyers even offering a defense. One juror is asked, “What would it have taken for a guilty verdict?” To which he replies, “Evidence.”

Yet the jubilation is short-lived when the government decides to retry Al-Arian on the remaining charges. Rather than raise the necessary $1 million for another trial, Al-Arian negotiates a plea agreement, with the expectation he will be released for time served and then deported. Instead, Judge James Moody sentences Al-Arian to 57 months in prison. Schedule to be released in April 2007, Al-Arian is instead called to testify before a Grand Jury in Virginia, which he refuses to do, claiming it violates his plea agreement. Judge Moody sentences Al-Arian to an additional 18 months for contempt. Al-Arian, a diabetic, recently ended a 62 day hunger strike to protest this ruling and Amnesty International expressed its concern, stating “the conditions under which Dr. Al-Arian has been detained both during his pre-trial detention, and since his sentencing, appear to be unacceptably harsh and punitive.”

Approaching five years since his arrest, Al-Arian is still in prison. USA vs Al-Arian is a great artistic endeavor that shows, with moving intimacy, the devastating effects on one family of the United States government’s “war on terror.”

This article was originally published by the Institute for Middle East Understanding and is republished with permission.

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