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California man questioned in anti-Muslim YouTube video 'Innocence of Muslims' that sparked riots (+video)

Brad KnickerbockerThe Christian Science Monitor

As protests over an anti-Islam film continue in a growing number of countries, the California man thought to be behind the video titled “Innocence of Muslims” has been taken in for questioning by federal authorities. Just after midnight Saturday morning – his face and head covered – a man identified as Nakoula Basseley Nakoula was taken from his home in Cerritos, Calif., by Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies for what law enforcement officials described as a “voluntary interview.” As the story unfolds, more details about Mr. Nakoula have emerged pointing to his identity as the “Sam Basile” – note the similarity between “Basseley” and “Basile” – initially named as the film maker. Still, the events of the past few days – including false leads, apparent pseudonyms, and anonymous interviews – caution against drawing any conclusions about the 14-minute YouTube video and its origins.

The video – presented as a trailer for a full-length film which may or may not exist – sparked violent protests in Muslim countries across North Africa and the Middle East, and it’s been tied to an apparently coordinated attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, where US Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other embassy personnel were killed Tuesday.

The whole episode involving the badly produced and poorly acted film (which appears to include crude dubbing of dialogue denigrating the Prophet Mohammad) raises questions about freedom of speech, which alone could make any prosecution in the United States difficult.

But at this point in the unfolding saga, if Nakoula is to remain in custody at all it probably will be related to his breaking the rules of his probation on wholly unrelated charges.

Nakoula pleaded no contest in 2010 to federal bank fraud charges in California and was ordered to pay more than $790,000 in restitution, the Associated Press reports. He was also sentenced to 21 months in federal prison and was ordered not to use computers or the Internet for five years without approval from his probation officer. He served about a year in prison.

His no contest plea was to charges of setting up fraudulent bank accounts using stolen identities and Social Security numbers, depositing checks from those accounts into other phony accounts and then withdrawing the illicit funds from ATM machines, according to the AP. While it was unclear what might have provoked authorities' interest, the filmmaker's use of a false identity and his access to the Internet through computers could be at issue, according to experts in cyber law and the federal probation system.

In addition to the fraud conviction, Nakoula pleaded guilty in 1997 to possession with intent to manufacture methamphetamine, for which he received a one-year jail sentence.

Although “Sam Basile” first was identified as an “Israeli-Jew,” Nakoula reportedly is a Coptic Christian. Coptic Christian church leaders professed shock at the news, and some actors in the video said they had been duped into taking part in a venture linked to deaths in Libya and elsewhere.

Before he was taken away to be interviewed, Nakoula’s home was the site of a press stakeout, some reporters noticing similarities between the house and scenes in the video.

“The door bears a striking resemblance to the front door in one of the early scenes in the video,” the New York Times reported. “The inside of the home, viewed through a window in the door, also suggests similarities to the locations where that scene was filmed: the chandeliers and layout seem to be the same.”

The White House has asked Google to consider whether the video is consistent with the company’s guidelines for posting on the Internet.

"We've restricted access to it in countries where it is illegal such as India and Indonesia, as well as in Libya and Egypt, given the very sensitive situations in these two countries," Google said in a statement. "This approach is entirely consistent with principles we first laid out in 2007."

“At Google we have a bias in favor of people's right to free expression in everything we do,” Rachel Whetstone, Google’s director of global communications and public affairs at the time wrote in a 2007 blog post.

“But it's not only legal considerations that drive our policies,” Ms. Whetstone wrote. “One type of content, while legal everywhere, may be almost universally unacceptable in one region yet viewed as perfectly fine in another. We are passionate about our users so we try to take into account local cultures and needs – which vary dramatically around the world – when developing and implementing our global product policies.”

For now, that means the video remains accessible in much of the world.

Meanwhile, the convoluted story behind the offensive video took another strange twist Saturday.

The website Gawker reported that “the anti-Islam film that's set off a firestorm in the Middle East was directed by a 65-year-old schlock director named Alan Roberts…. the creative vision behind softcore porn classics like The Happy Hooker Goes Hollywood.”

But Gawker also noted that “Alan Roberts” is not the director’s real name.