x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

US filmmaker tied to anti-Islam movie questioned by authorities

Federal probation officers interview the southern California filmmaker, a Coptic Christian, but not arrested or detained.

WASHINGTON // A Southern California filmmaker linked to the anti-Islamic movie that has sparked protests across the Middle East and elsewhere was questioned by federal probation officers yesterday, but not arrested or detained,

Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, 55, who served time in prison for financial crimes, voluntarily went to the sheriff's office in Los Cerritos, a Los Angeles suburb, for an interview with detectives, according to a sheriff's spokesman.

Federal officials have said if the probation department determines Mr Nakoula violated terms of his release, a judge could send him back to prison.

Mr Nakoula, a Coptic Christian, is suspected of being the driving force behind the Innocence of Muslims, a movie denigrating Islam and the Prophet Mohammed. He is understood to have provided his home as a set for the movie and paid actors in cooperation with a California-based charity, Media for Christ, which obtained the permit to make the movie.

There have been reports that Mr Nakoula and the director of the movie, Sam Bacile, are either closely connected or the same person. Steve Klein, who has described himself as a consultant to the movie, acknowledged on Wednesday that the name "Sam Bacile" was a pseudonym. Wires service reporters traced a mobile phone number said to belong to Mr Bacile to the same address as Mr Nakoula's residence.

During an interview with the Associated Press, Mr Nakoula denied that he was Sam Bacile, but acknowledged knowing him.

Sheriff deputies will now have to decide whether, by being involved with the movie, Mr Nakoula violated the terms of his probation. Mr Nakoula was released from prison in June 2011 and is barred from accessing the internet or using aliases without approval from a probation officer during his five-year probation period.

He was arrested in June 2009, pleaded no contest to the bank fraud charges a year later. Along with a 21-month prison sentence, Mr Nakoula was ordered to pay more than $790,000 (Dh2.9 million) in restitution.

Many records in the case remain sealed, but, according to the Associated Press review of the case, prosecutors sought a longer prison term and noted that he misused some of his own relatives' identities to open 600 fraudulent credit accounts.

In addition to bank fraud, Mr Nakoula served a prison sentence in the 1990s for possession of methamphetamine.

He has denied any involvement in the movie, according to Bishop Serapion of the Coptic Orthodox Diocese of Los Angeles, Southern California and Hawaii. Mr Nakoula reportedly spoke to Bishop Serapion a day after he had told the Associated Press that he helped finance the film.

The diocese released a statement on Thursday condemning the "inflammatory" movie and rejecting any association with it to the Coptic Church.

"The producers of this movie should be responsible for their actions. The name of our blessed parishioners should not be associated with the efforts of individuals who have ulterior motives," the statement said.

The Coptic community in America has been deeply embarrassed by the movie and both church officials and other community leaders have been quick to condemn the film and dissociate themselves from its makers.

"I think it's a shame that the name of any church or any religion would get dragged down by the unwise actions of a few people," said Ihab Marcus, director of communications at St Mark Coptic Orthodox Church in Fairfax, Virginia.

The church hosted its annual Egypt Bazaar Day yesterday, an event that attracted more interest than usual because of the events of the past week. Local Muslims as well as mosque representatives were due to attend, Mr Marcus said.

"I read the fact that [those behind the movie] are claiming to be Coptic Christians, but nothing in their behaviour shows what Coptic Christian or any Christian behaviour ought to be," he said.

Actors working on the movie say they were under the impression that for at least part of the movie they were filming at a location belonging to Sam Bacile. They were paid in checks in the name of Abanob Basseley Nakoula, Mr Nakoula's the 20-year-old son.

 

okarmi@thenational.ae