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Revisiting the Terror

It was a devastating time for Albany’s Muslim community. Reports of a beloved religious leader arrested and handcuffed inside his Central Avenue mosque filled the pages of the local newspapers and TV news broadcasts. The allegations against Imam Yassin Aref and his congregant, Mohammed Hossain, seemed absurd; the two respected family men had been arrested in connection with a terrorism plot? Many felt that it had to be a mistake. And yet, federal agents had announced the arrests at a press conference in Washington, D.C., with all the gravity of announcing the capture of Osama bin Laden. The two men would be tried and convicted as the result of an FBI sting that many in the Capital Region decried as a shameful episode of paranoia and bigotry.

Ellie Bernstein, a documentary filmmaker, moved to the area soon after the verdict. She was invited to attend what would be the first meeting of the Muslim Solidarity Committee, a multifaith group brought together to protest the verdicts and show support for the families of the two men. Eager for a new project, Bernstein said to herself: “Wow, this would make a good film.”

Waiting for Mercy: The Case Against Yassin Aref and Mohammed Hossain, the film that Bernstein would spend the next two years researching, writing, and directing, covers a broad swath of time, spanning from 2001, when America went into a temporary insanity; through the arrests, trial, conviction, and sentencing of Aref and Hossain; and through 2007, when the men lost their appeals. The film weaves interviews with lawyers, journalists, and advocates into a methodical, deliberate refutation of the conviction that sent the two Muslims to prison for 15 years.

For Bernstein, the greatest challenge was to present this sprawling and complicated case in a clear, engaging way. “I was very, very interested in getting the story straight,” she says. “In getting it logical. That was the challenge we had, and it was torturous.”

She relied considerably on the skills of her editor, Tony Grocki, who worked for years with some of the industry’s top directors, including the Coen brothers and Jim Jarmusch. Together the two filmmakers sifted through hundreds of hours of research and interviews, at times overwhelmed by the insanity of the government’s case.

“ ‘This is crazy,’ ” Grocki would say over and over, Bernstein says. “I came to understand that when Tony said that, he meant that the thing was so unbelievable to him.” As it was to her.

Local pundits, including the Daily Gazette’s Carl Strock and the Times Union’s Fred LeBrun (both of whom are in Waiting for Mercy), railed against the case as an example of law enforcement obsessed with religious profiling. The defense attorneys for Aref and Hossain cried entrapment. Aref’s attorney even filed an injunction against the government’s alleged use of illegally rendered evidence, courtesy of President Bush’s covert wiretapping program. One wonders, in a less insane period of American history, would two respected members of the community have been singled out, investigated and convicted in such an elaborate and illusory fashion? That is the question that lies at the heart of the criticism of the government’s case, and Waiting for Mercy attempts to make a strong, lasting argument that, no, it wouldn’t have happened.

In the film’s most poignant moment, Hossain’s oldest son, the teenager Abu Homza, wonders at the believability that his father, a man who struggled against poverty to come to this country, and then worked for more than a decade to build a business and support his large family, would then conspire to injure the country that he was so in love with? The boy seethes with anger and reason.

“The government doesn’t draw the line between what a terrorist is, and somebody who they think may be a terrorist,” Bernstein says. “And that is such a huge line. It means that you can’t say or do or think anything outside of the boundaries of what is so-called a ‘good citizen.’ This whole case is based on guilt by association.”

The film’s title comes from a poem written by Aref: “Waiting for mercy from the wolves.”

—Chet Hardin

Waiting for Mercy: The Case Against Yassin Aref and Mohammed Hossain will premiere tomorrow (Friday, Jan. 16) and run through Thursday (Jan. 22) at the Madison Theatre, 1036 Madison Ave., Albany. Find more information about the documentary online at waitingformercy.com. See this week’s movie schedule for complete shows and times.

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