A documentary film on the trial of Yassin Aref and Mohammed Hossain, who were convicted in 2006 of federal charges after a terrorist-related sting in Albany, is about to make the rounds.
Ellie Bernstein, a technical writer and documentary filmmaker who now lives in Albany, wrote and directed the film, “Waiting for Mercy.”
“It’s about the Albany case. It’s very thorough, it’s a documentary,” Bernstein said on Friday. “It covers the legal issues, the attorneys, the Justice Department and the men’s families. I have really tried to make it as broad and thorough as possible.”
Aref, who was an imam at an Albany mosque, and Hossain, a pizzeria owner, were caught in a 2004 FBI sting involving a fictional terror strike. As part of the sting, a confidential informant represented himself as an arms dealer providing a missile to a terrorist group for an attack on the Pakistani ambassador to the United Nations in New York City. The informant’s testimony and recordings of conversations he had with Hossain and Aref were key pieces of prosecution evidence by the U.S. Attorney’s Office at the trial.
The two men were never accused of actual violence, but the government said they participated in a money-laundering scheme that included their awareness of the presumed attack.
When Bernstein first learned about the case she was riveted and knew immediately she had to make a documentary. She went to the mosque where Aref had been an imam to tell them about her plan and she said they looked at her like she was crazy.
That was two years ago. Since then she has done many interviews with families of the two men, Terence Kindlon and Kevin Luibrand, the attorneys who represented them, and many others. The documentary will premiere on Jan. 16 at the Madison Theater. After that it will be distributed to other outlets.
Earlier private showings are being held in the next few days.
grew up in the ’60s
Bernstein, 65, lived in New York City for 25 years. She was a painter and graphic designer and started making films when she was in her 40s. Her first film was “Closing the Open Door: The Fight for a College Education.”
In 2001 she started work on a film, “Women in Black,” about a grass-roots group begun by Jewish women in Israel in 1988. She plans to complete that film after “Waiting for Mercy” is distributed.
She said she’s drawn to making documentaries because of her background growing up in the 1960s, a time of political conflict and activism. She went to Nicaragua after the revolution in the ’80s and worked for the newspaper The Sandinista Internationale. She has also traveled to Cuba extensively.
Bernstein said she believes there’s an audience for the film, not only in the Capital Region, but elsewhere because of the political climate. “I have tried to talk about broader issues in the film and focus on the case,” she said. “Hopefully I have uncovered some issues.”
Some of those issues include warrantless wiretapping, secret evidence, entrapment and targeting of Muslims, Bernstein said. Her film covers the issue of the fictitious terrorist plot and what she calls the “insult to the Pakistani ambassador in New York.”
“I really want people to look at it and think about the issues,” she said of her film.
The Muslim Solidarity Committee, which formed after Aref and Hossain were found guilty and sentenced to long prison terms, has helped with some costs.
Bernstein said when she moved from Catskill to Albany, Aref and Hossain were both in jail. She met Hossain in the Rensselaer County Jail but never met Aref.
Bernstein said the FBI and Assistant U.S. Attorney William Pericak, who prosecuted the case, would not be interviewed for the film. The U.S. Attorney’s Office held a news conference after the verdict, which she filmed.
As a documentary filmmaker, Bernstein wants the film to speak for itself. “Let the viewer decide.” Bernstein worked on the film with editor Tony Grocki.
Aref and Hossain remain in prison.