TAMPA, Fla. — Prof. Melva Underbakke has been crisscrossing the country showing “USA vs. Al-Arian,” a prizewinning film about the ordeal of former University of South Florida professor Sami al-Arian. He has been in jail now for more than five years, despite a Tampa jury verdict finding him innocent of “terrorism” charges trumped up by the Justice Department.

Underbakke and other members of the Tampa-based Friends of Human Rights showed the film once again during her brief return home to Tampa May 2. “It’s outrageous that he is still in prison,” Underbakke told the audience. She said she was on her way to Knoxville, Tenn., Louisville, Ky., St. Louis, various locations in Iowa and Fayettevllle, Ark., the next week to show the film at churches, community centers and college campuses.

Another Friends of Human Rights activist, Lois Price, said, “I always believed that Sami was innocent. I have friends who were in his classes at USF who praised him as such a good, dedicated teacher, concerned about them as people.”

Al-Arian was targeted by the Bush administration, she said, because he is such a passionate defender of the rights of the Palestinian people. “He feels this is not just about him. There are hundreds of others being held in prison,” she said. “He’s standing up for the rights of all Americans.”

Jesse Kern, a veteran peace and justice activist in the Tampa Bay area, said, “I spent 42 days at the trial. I heard all about the government’s intercept of hundreds of thousands of al-Arian’s telephone calls and e-mails going all the way back to 1994. They spent $60 million. Yet the jury said ‘not guilty’ on eight counts and did not convict on the remaining nine counts. Why is he still in jail? It was part of the Bush administration’s buildup to the war in Iraq.”

The film records the tearful, joyous celebration by the al-Arian family and their supporters at a Tampa mosque after the verdict was announced Dec. 6, 2005.

In the film, heartbreak follows when al-Arian’s wife, Nahla, and five children learn that he will not be freed. In a flagrant abuse of judicial power, Judge James Moody and the Justice Department ignored the jury’s verdict and have refused to release Al-Arian. On Feb. 26, 2006, Al-Arian accepted a plea agreement acknowledging he helped a Palestinian man with immigration issues in exchange for a promise that all other charges would be dropped. He would serve a short sentence and then would be deported. But in May 2006, Judge Moody ignored the government recommendation and gave Al-Arian the maximum sentence.

In October 2006, Assistant U.S. Attorney Gorden Kromberg of Virginia issued a subpoena ordering Al-Arian to appear before a third grand jury. Al-Arian refused on grounds the suboena violates the plea agreement. Federa Judge Geral Lee then cited Al-Arian for ‘criminal contempt.’

Yet the 52-minute movie by Norwegian filmmaker Line Halvorsen is having an impact despite a near-total blackout by the corporate media.

On May 1, al-Arian was moved from the segregation unit to the general prison population at Hampton Roads Regional Prison in Virginia. The small but important victory was the result of thousands of letters and e-mails to the Justice Department mobilized in part by the film.

Another factor is al-Arian’s repeated hunger strikes, the most recent a 57-day fast he suspended April 28 after losing 40 pounds.

Al-Arian still faces a sentence of five to ten years if convicted on the contempt charge.

To sign a petition demanding that Sami al-Arian be freed, or to learn more about the film and the al-Arian case, visit www.freesamialarian.com.

greenerpastures21212 @ yahoo.com
This article was updated on 5/27/08 with more accurate information.