After a film insulting the Prophet Muhammad triggered mass protests in Muslim-majority countries across North Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere, Nakoula Basseley Nakoula has been transformed from a shadowy ex-convict into an international man of mystery.
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But questions remain about Nakoula’s exact role in the production of the film, and rumours continue to circulate about the video’s dissemination.
Early on Saturday, probation officers briefly interviewed – but did not technically arrest – the Coptic Christian resident of southern California who has been on probation since his conviction for financial crimes.
As part of his release terms, he was forbidden from using computers or the internet for five years. His probation order also warned Nakoula against using false identities.
Nakoula has already admitted uploading the trailer to the internet, which could constitute a violation of the terms of his five-year probation.
It was not immediately clear whether Nakoula was the target merely of a probation violation check, a new criminal investigation – or part of the broader investigation into the deaths of US Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans in Libya possibly related to outrage over the video.
The Innocence of Muslims film, which allegedly cost $100,000 to produce, was reportedly co-ordinated by Joseph Nasrallah Abdelmasih’s Media for Christ nonprofit. It was apparently directed by soft pornographer Alan Roberts, an industry veteran whose prior work was dominated by titles like “Happy Hooker Goes Hollywood”.
Nakoula reportedly managed the film’s logistics, while Roberts directed the acting and set up the cameras.
But reports suggest that Roberts, whose real name is likely Robert Brownwell, may have been duped – along with the cast – into participating in a film that would subsequently be altered to promote objectionable political and religious messages.
Federal authorities confirmed to the AP news agency that Nakoula was indeed connected to the persona of “Sam Bacile”, a man who had initially claimed to the AP that he was the film’s writer and director.
But Bacile turned out to be a false identity, and the AP traced a cellphone number Bacile used to a southern California house where it located and interviewed the real Nakoula.
Bacile first said he was Jewish and Israeli, but Israeli officials said they had no records of such a citizen. Others involved in the film said his statements were contrived, as evidence mounted that the film’s key player was an Egyptian-American Copt with a checkered past.
Nakoula told the AP in an interview on Wednesday that he managed logistics for the company that produced the film. But Nakoula still denied he was Bacile and said he did not direct the film – though he said he “knew” Bacile.
Other articles now suggest, based on accounts from some of the actors, that Nakoula’s 21-year-old son, Abanob Basseley Nakoula, was the man who went by the alias “Sam Bacile” during filming of the “historical war drama period piece” in front of a green screen in Duarte, California.
Federal court papers filed against the elder Nakoula in a 2010 criminal prosecution noted that he had used numerous aliases, including Nicola Bacily, Robert Bacily, Erwin Salameh and around a dozen others.
Other pseudonyms used in the accounts ranged from Ahmed Hamdy to PJ Tobacco.
Nakoula pleaded no contest in 2010 to federal bank fraud charges in California and was ordered to pay more than $790,000 in restitution. He was also sentenced to 21 months in federal prison.
He was released in June 2011, and at least some production on the video was done later that summer.
Assistant US Attorney Jennifer Leigh Williams said Nakoula set up fraudulent bank accounts using stolen identities and Social Security numbers. Checks from those accounts would be deposited into other bogus accounts from which Nakoula would withdraw money at ATM machines.
Nakoula’s attorney James D Henderson Sr cited poor health in a bid for leniency and home detention, stating his client suffered from Hepatitis C, diabetes that require twice-daily insulin shots, according to a transcript of the sentencing.
Nakoula got involved in the scheme after losing his job in the gas station industry and had been forced to work for a few dollars a weekend at swap meets to try to support his children and an ailing father, Henderson said.
|Tens of thousands of demonstrators have protested against the film made by American who described Islam as a “cancer” [AFP]|
Prior to his bank fraud conviction, Nakoula struggled with a series of financial problems, according to California state tax and bankruptcy records. In June 2006, a $191,000 tax lien was filed against him in the Los Angeles County Recorder of Deeds office. In 1997, a $106,000 lien was filed against him in Orange County.
In addition to the fraud conviction, Nakoula also pleaded guilty in 1997 to possession with intent to manufacture methamphetamine and was sentenced to a year in jail, said Sandi Gibbons, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office.
Nakoula claims to have attended services at the Coptic Orthodox Church in Los Angeles, but the church’s Bishop Serapion initially said none of his priests recognised the fraudster as a congregant.
The bishop later told the AP he confirmed with a priest in Bellflower, California, that Nakoula had once gone to the parish but had not been to services in a long time.
Nakoula swore to the bishop he had nothing to do with the anti-Islam film.
Serapion said only “God knows” if Nakoula was truthful, but the cleric told Nakoula the filmmaker should take full responsibility for the mess he made.
Stan Goldman, a Loyola Law School professor, said whether Nakoula is sent back to jail over potential probation violations linked to the recent film is a subjective decision up to an individual judge.
“Federal judges are gods in their own courtrooms, it varies so much in who they are,” he said, noting such a move would be based on Nakoula’s conduct – and not on the content of the film.