LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A California man linked to an anti-Islam film that sparked violent protests across the Muslim world was questioned on Saturday by authorities investigating possible violations of his probation for a bank fraud conviction.
Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, 55, a Coptic Christian, was voluntarily interviewed by federal probation officers at a sheriff’s station in the Los Angeles suburb of Cerritos and left about 30 minutes later, said Steve Whitmore, a spokesman for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
The crudely made 13-minute English-language movie, filmed in California and circulated on the Internet under several titles including “Innocence of Muslims,” mocks the Prophet Mohammad and portrays him as a buffoon.
The film helped generate a violent protest at the U.S. consulate in the Libyan city of Benghazi during which the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans were killed on Tuesday. U.S. officials said they believe militants used the protest as cover to carry out an armed assault on the diplomatic compound and a building that was supposed to be a safe house.
Protests have spread to other countries across the Muslim world.
For many Muslims, any depiction of the prophet is blasphemous. Caricatures deemed insulting in the past have provoked protests and drawn condemnations from officials, preachers, ordinary Muslims and many Christians.
U.S. officials have said authorities were not investigating the film project itself, and that even if it was inflammatory or led to violence, simply producing it cannot be considered a crime in the United States, which has strong free speech laws.
An attorney for Nakoula did not return phone calls and a representative for the U.S. Probation Office had no comment on the outcome of Nakoula’s questioning by officers.
Nakoula was ushered out of his home shortly after midnight and into a waiting car by sheriff’s deputies, his face shielded by a scarf, hat and sunglasses.
“He was never put in handcuffs ... It was all voluntary,” said Whitmore, who added that Nakoula would not immediately return to his home.
Nakoula, whose name has been widely linked to the film in media reports, pleaded guilty to bank fraud in 2010 and was sentenced to 21 months in prison, to be followed by five years on supervised probation, court documents showed.
He was accused of fraudulently opening bank and credit card accounts using Social Security numbers that did not match the names on the applications, a criminal complaint showed. He was released in June 2011 and the film was produced later that summer.
The terms of Nakoula’s release restrict him from accessing the Internet or assuming aliases without the approval of his probation officer.
A senior law enforcement official in Washington has indicated the probation investigation relates to whether Nakoula broke one or both of these conditions.
A source with knowledge of the case has said the probation office was looking specifically into Nakoula’s possible involvement in making the YouTube film in violation of the terms of his release.
Any probation violation could result in him being sent back to prison, court records showed.
Clips of the film posted on the Internet since July have been attributed to a man by the name of Sam Bacile, which two people linked to the film have said was likely an alias.
A telephone number said to belong to Bacile was given to Reuters by U.S.-based Coptic Christian activist Morris Sadek who said he had promoted the film. That phone number was traced back to a person who shares the Nakoula residence.
A crew member on the film said in an interview with Reuters that he was there when scenes were shot at Nakoula’s house in Cerritos. The man, who did not want his name used due to concerns about his safety, said he was told at the time that it was the home of the producer, Sam Bacile.
In film clips circulating on YouTube, distinctive front doors shown from the inside in one scene were nearly indistinguishable from the front doors of Nakoula’s house as seen from the outside. Both have frosted glass, semi-circular cut-outs with stenciled rose designs in the wood double-door entrance.
The film crew member said he heard the budget was under $100,000 and that the man he knew as Bacile was in charge of the money.
“He said he raised it himself,” the man told Reuters. “He said he owned gas stations throughout Orange County and all this other stuff, and he said he saved it out of his own pocket.”
The Wall Street Journal has reported that assistant director Jeffrey Robinson said the film’s budget was $250,000.
An expired Backstage.com casting call described the production as “ultra low budget,” and commentators have cited the amateurish film’s fake beards and stilted dialogue as evidence of its crude production.
The casting call lists the film as a “historical Arabian Desert adventure film” and the crew member said he was told that it was a period piece set in Egypt thousands of years ago and dealt with conditions for women at the time.
He said that when he was working on the production, under the title “Desert Warrior,” it was not described to him as being about the Prophet Mohammad. The script was distributed only two or three pages at a time, he said.
In several scenes from the film circulating on YouTube, actors’ voices appear to be dubbed over to insert dialogue relating to Mohammad or the Koran.
The nonprofit group Media for Christ took out a production permit for the film, according to officials from the city of Duarte, California, where the group is based. Tax documents list Joseph Nasrallah Abdelmasih as the head of Media for Christ.
An online video posted in 2010 shows Abdelmasih at a New York rally, where he urged a crowd to “stop the Islamization of America” and oppose the construction of a Muslim center at the site of the World Trade Center attack.
The crew member who worked on the film said some shooting occurred at the offices of Media for Christ, which broadcasts satellite TV shows and seeks to reach audiences in the Middle East and North Africa. He said people from the organization were present during the filming.
Representatives of Media for Christ could not be reached for comment. Their offices were closed when Reuters visited them over the past two days.
Additional reporting by Bret Hartman in Cerritos and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Writing by Cynthia Johnston; Editing by Bill Trott and Christopher Wilson