The Al-Arian family, stars of Norway

Thanks to a new documentary, the Al-Arians are celebrities in a country fascinated with their case

OSLO, Norway — Before daylight on the day that marked four years of Dr. Sami Al-Arian's imprisonment, his eldest daughter Laila and wife Nahla were guests on the popular Norwegian television program God morgen Norge (Good Morning Norway). But during a week in which she was whisked from one reporter to another, that show wasn't even the most watched television program on which Nahla appeared.

Three days after those Feb. 20 appearances, Nahla headlined Norway's top TV show, Først & sist (First and Last), the equivalent of appearing on Letterman, Leno and 60 Minutes combined. Nahla was seen by 1.3 million viewers in this country of 5 million.

Being major celebrities is a new experience for even such a media-weary family as the Al-Arians. They were in Norway last week for a whirlwind of interviews, television appearances, meetings at Parliament and film screenings surrounding the premiere of the new documentary USA mot Al-Arian (USA vs. Al-Arian). The film is a hit, and the Al-Arians a cause celebre.

The star welcome here is in stark contrast to antipathy (or apathy) they've grown accustomed to in Florida. Concerned Norwegians have followed the case in the media for the last four years, but interest has magnified ever since the Jan. 19 screening of the film at the Tromsø International Film Festival, where it received the Audience Award. After the film makes the festival and cinema rounds, an abbreviated version will air on Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, Finnish and Greek television and on the satellite channel Al-Arabiya, potentially reaching 55 million viewers.

The documentary is an emotional chronicle of the Tampa trial, plea agreement and sentencing of Dr. Al-Arian during 2005 and 2006, with emphasis on how the ordeal is affecting his family. On the morning of the Oslo grand premiere last Thursday, which received a standing ovation, the reviews were published in newspapers across Norway: "Go see this one!" "An international-class documentary film," "Sober, low-key and balanced ... a strong human portrait," "A real-life horror film" and "Touching and memorable" were some of the raves, accompanied by ratings of 5 and 6 out of 6.

So much buzz had been created that Agot Valle, a Member of Parliament, hosted a private screening of the film for her fellow members last Tuesday.

"Franklin D. Roosevelt warned the American people not to give in to fear," Valle told me. "Giving in to fear may lead us to infringe human rights, civil rights, freedom of speech — the basis of democracy." She said that since 9/11, Americans have been consumed by fear, "but a movie like this, I think will bring a new debate on how far [stripping of civil liberties will] go and not to give in to fear."

The tenor of Valle's comments was echoed by many Norwegians — the view that Al-Arian got a raw deal and that his treatment was directly related to post-9/11 attitudes toward Muslims. Gunnar Ballo, a Member of Parliament from the Socialist Left Party, said, "If we don't keep up with the human rights situation ... and just fight [for] human rights, we will lose as a democracy and USA will lose as a democracy."

Gerald Kador Folkvord of Amnesty International Norway agreed. He leads their campaign against human rights violations in the "war on terror." On Monday, Amnesty sponsored a screening of the documentary followed by a reception hosted by the Nobel Peace Center. Folkvord said that based on Amnesty's research, Al-Arian has been subjected "to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. One of the things that Amnesty has repeatedly pointed out was that this very much looked like just a means of punishing him for his attitudes."

People who saw the film or met the Al-Arian family spoke of contrasting attitudes between the United States and Norway regarding civil liberties and human rights. Some mentioned that Norwegians don't have the same level of paranoia as Americans. Others felt that the U.S. government is targeting Muslim activists in order to silence dissent.

Even the film's Norwegian director, Line Halvorsen, described how much of a contrast it was for her to work on the film in the U.S. compared with Norway. In Florida, she found it "kind of a struggle to convince people that there's something fishy going on in the Al-Arian case. While here in Norway, people seem to be much more receptive. ... There's a lot of things happening in the States right now that the Norwegian people are skeptical of."

In early 2004, before the trial started, Halvorsen moved to Lakeland from Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank where she had made a film about Palestinian children. She met Nahla when that film, A Stone's Throw Away, was screened in Tampa. "The more that I got to know the family, the more I realized that this was an interesting story, and I'd like to make a film on it. ... It was also very interesting for me having lived among Arabs and Muslims in Palestine. To see in a post-9/11 climate how Muslims and Arabs were treated in the States. And when I found this story, it all came together."

Halvorsen looks forward to her new documentary spurring a debate in Norway on where to strike the balance between civil liberties and security. "In Norway we have some suggestions to change the laws where the police would take these so-called terrorism cases out of the court and treat them in secret courts, and I think it's really important that we have a debate if that's the kind of society we want."

Al-Arian is still in jail, in the second month of his hunger strike protesting being held in contempt of court for refusing to testify before the Virginia grand jury. His original sentence, based on the plea agreement, would have had him freed and deported in April, but the contempt may prolong his incarceration. The Norwegians I spoke with think the U.S. government should keep its word.

Read more in The view from there: What USA vs. Al-Arian reveals

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