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Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2008: The U.S.A. vs. Al-Arian

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Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2008: <em>The U.S.A. vs. Al-Arian</em>

The travails of University of South Florida professor Sami Al-Arian make for a Kafkaesque example of the Bush administration’s post-9/11 detention policies, which have incarcerated some 5,000 U.S.-residing “terrorist” suspects without a resulting conviction. Line Halvorsen’s mix of vérité and talking heads presents a case history of a middle-aged Palestinian-rights activist and academic, arrested and taken from his home in the middle of the night, with prosecutors promising that nine years of bugged family phone calls, seized books, connections to charities and alleged immigration-related chicanery would prove that he was a leading terror-cell mastermind. At the end of a six-month 2005 trial in Tampa, featuring Israeli survivors and witnesses of bus bombings to which the state made no link to Al-Arian, the computer-science professor and his three co-defendants were not convicted on any of 51 counts. (When asked what would’ve convinced him of Al-Arian’s guilt, a juror deadpans, “Evidence.”) Halvorsen gives a large share of screen time to Al-Arian’s frequently distraught wife Nahla and their five children, and while the choice results in occasional redundancy (the photogenic sons playing video games in their Coldplay T-shirts are just reg’lar American dudes), it domesticates the nightmare of thousands. The film shies warily from many specifics of Al-Arian’s verifiable activities, aside from a rally clip of him yelling, “Victory for Islam, death to Israel,” to which he defensively responds, “I never meant individuals…” But when after his seeming legal victory his incarceration goes on and on, even after a reluctant plea bargain and promised deportation, one doesn’t have to embrace Al-Arian’s agenda to believe that the highly publicized vise he was placed in (beginning with an ostentatious press conference by Attorney General Ashcroft) was race-baiting political circus at its core, and as close to a show trial as Patriot Act-enabled jurisprudence can get.

The U.S.A. vs. Al-Arian @ Human Rights Watch International Film Festival

This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.