A Prisoner of Conscience in the USA
Feb. 9, 2007
LE MONDE diplomatique
DOCUMENTARY: Norwegian documentary film can also claim to depict political issues that are of global significance. In the film USA versus Al-Arian, we see the jury found Al-Arian not guilty on all counts…and the judge hand down a prison sentence and deportation. Evidence is not so important in counteracting terror. The documentary is due to be shown on Norwegian cinemas in February.
By Kim Bredesen
Journalist for norske Le Monde diplomatique
The documentary film USA versus Al-Arian (2007), directed by Line Halvorsen and recently shown at the Tromsø International Film Festival, provides us with a grotesque example of the willingness of the American authorities to trample over the civil liberties of the individual to achieve political aims. Not to put too fine a point on things: if you’re looking for decisive proof that the war against terror is a farce of enormous proportions, you need look no further than this film. It painstakingly and methodically documents how the peace activist and campaigner for Palestinian rights,
Professor Sami Amir Al-Arian was a sacrificial pawn in the American authority’s frantic hunt for scapegoats to link to 9/11. The film starts by recounting the events of 20 February 2003 - the day the FBI stormed Al-Arian’s family home in Tampa, Florida and arrested him on suspicion of supporting terrorist organisations.
The film then follows his case as seen through the eyes of Nahla, his indefatigable wife and supporter and their five children. All credit to the director who gives a unique insight into the situation of those most directly affected by the case. It is through their eyes that we witness the entire prosecution case and track the American mass media’s blatant, grand-scale demonisation of Al-Arian.Al-Arian was summoned to appear in court alongside four others accused of having provided support - financial and other - to terrorist activities in Palestine. Even though the prosecution had no direct evidence connecting him to e.g. suicide bombings, he was nonetheless accused of conspiring to facilitate these actions. However this accusation was not especially convincing due to the prosecution’s decision to allow Israeli victims and families of Palestinian suicide bombers to testify, regardless of the fact that there was no evidence to link Al-Arian to the events these people had experienced. So what were the grounds for his court appearance?
Well, it was claimed that Al-Arian supported terrorism as he had been involved in lobbying Congress (where he met George W. Bush) for the rights of Palestinians and had also attempted to raise funds for Palestinian social causes. In addition, the prosecution presented a range of “evidence” to the jury that was withheld from both Al-Arian and the public. Al-Arian’s defence saw that they did not have a strong case against them and so did not consider it necessary to call a single witness, believing that the burden of proof rested with the prosecution. The insubstantial, or more accurately, non-existent submission of evidence was apparent to the jury deliberating the case; they found Al-Arian not guilty on all counts.
Several jury members were interviewed in the film as saying that they did not understand the grounds for the Israelis’ testimony or their connection to the case. Several others also said that they had the distinct impression that the prosecution wanted the jury to quite simply take their word for it that Al-Arian was guilty. But they could not sentence him on such flimsy grounds.
WHEN NEWS OF the jury’s verdict reached Al-Arian’s family there was immense relief and they concluded that the justice system was a fair one. But their joy was short-lived – the prosecution decided to reverse their crushing defeat and charge Al-Arian again, this time on the 9 of 17 counts for which there had been a hung jury. The result was a desperate campaign of attrition against both Al-Arian and his family. As Al-Arian himself says in the film: “justice doesn’t come cheap in this country.” Several hundred thousand dollars were paid to the defence lawyers. After another round of hearings both parties came to a settlement. It culminated in an absurd end-game where Al-Arian was to be allowed to leave the country if he was willing to “admit” to a series of truisms, like helping Palestinian activists in the USA and having worked to bolster human rights and strengthen Palestinian independence. None of these admissions in any way constituted a criminal act, but the prosecution nevertheless looked upon it as a victory.
Things were to get even worse when sentencing took place, in accordance with the settlement. In what is normally a legal procedure, a federal judge took it upon himself to chastise Al-Arian for being guilty of murder and terrorist acts against Israeli citizens, calling Al-Arian “dangerous” and a “master manipulator.”The judge began to invent his own evidenceNone of the circumstances the judge mentioned could be connected to Al-Arian, but the judge nevertheless saw fit to overlook this and began to invent his own evidence. The result was that Al-Arian was given the maximum penalty and had to serve several years in prison before being allowed to leave the country. This happened to a man who had been found innocent of all the charges against him. This is the stuff of horror movies and seriously calls into question the rule of law in the USA. How could the judge have allowed himself to behave in this way?
Prosecution representative, Paul Perez perhaps provides the best explanation of this in the film when he says that after 9/11 a new paradigm had been introduced to the American Justice Department – there was now less focus on the actual prosecution of terrorist suspects and more on prevention. In other words, evidence is not so important in counteracting terror, rather the ability to see conspiracies and connections between events. This is a perplexing case and the director has done a truly great deed in finally bringing it before a larger audience. The film is proof that Norwegian documentary film can also claim to depict political issues that are of global significance. We are the visual witnesses to the fact that conspiracy theories constitute the most significant legal grounds on which the American authorities accuse individuals of terrorism. For Al-Arian, this means that he is a prisoner of conscience in the USA. Right now he is serving a sentence in Virginia USA, 1300 kilometres away from his family, for crimes he did not commit. He will not be released before 2008. His family is still searching for a country to which he can be deported. Why should that country not be Norway? © Diplo Norway