Documentary highlighting justice system flaws coming to Ellis Tuesday night

The film is about Sami Al-Arian, who was detained for five years on terrorism-related charges.

A documentary chronicling one man's fight against federal terrorism charges and his family's struggle will be shown at MU tonight as part of a tour through mid-Missouri.

The 2007 film, called "USA vs. Al-Arian," produced by Line Halvorsen, was shown in Fulton and at Stephens College Monday night. Halvorsen and Mel Underbakke, of the organization Friends of Human Rights, spoke after the showing of the film.

The documentary tells the story of former University of South Florida computer engineering professor, Sami Al-Arian, who was a prominent member of the Muslim community in Tampa, Fla., and a vocal advocate for the de-occupation of Palestine by Israel.

FBI agents arrested Al-Arian in February 2003 on charges of funding and supporting the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a group the U.S. designated a terrorist organization in 1995. The day of Al-Arian's arrest, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft held a press conference announcing the capture as the leader of a global terror cell. 

The government alleged Al-Arian had funded terrorist activities through the World Islamic Studies Enterprise, a pro-Palestine think tank Al-Arian established at USF in the 1980s. Al-Arian contended he had only contributed to Palestinian charities.

Al-Arian was held in jail for two years before going to federal trial in 2005 on more than 17 terrorism-related charges. The film shows his family's struggles to visit him every day and attend every day of his trial.

He was acquitted of the charges in 2005, but was not released until this September of this year.

According the film, more than 6,000 Americans have been detained on federal terrorism charges since Sept. 11, and Underbakke said Al-Arian's situation is not unique.

"It's a story that a lot of Americans don't know is happening," Underbakke said. "But it's fairly common."

Halvorsen said that even with changes in the American political scene, she is not optimistic about changes in legal situations like Al-Arian's because the agencies that carry out the policies would be reluctant to scale back their efforts.

"The departments that gained power won't give it back," Halvorsen said. "Once you give civil liberties away, you can't get them back."

After his acquittal, Al-Arian remained in federal custody while prosecutors debated whether to re-try him for the nine counts on which the jury had been deadlocked. Al-Arian eventually agreed to plead guilty to immigration violations and be deported, the minimum sentence as recommended by the prosecution.

The judge instead sentenced him to the maximum of 57 months in prison. After completing that sentence with credit for time served, Al-Arian was called to testify in front of a grand jury in Virginia. Al-Arian refused and was sentenced to an additional 18 months in prison, which he completed in September.

Stephens College sophomore Elizabeth DeGreer said Al-Arian's prosecution exposed one problem with the judicial system, but that it was too widespread to be seriously addressed.

"It's shocking because it seems like racial profiling," DeGreer said. "It's shocking but not shocking at the same time." 

Stephens College Liberal Arts Dean Tina Parke-Sutherland said the film's message is important for college students to hear as a counterpoint to the government's stance, which got most of the media attention during the trial.

"Colleges are the places where things are supposed to be discussed and both sides should be heard," Parke-Sutherland said.

The film will be shown today at 7:30 p.m. in Ellis Auditorium.

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