- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 10, 2009

WASHINGTON

A Palestinian shopkeeper and father portrayed as a terrorist in the movie “Bruno” is suing film star Sacha Baron Cohen, David Letterman and others for libel and slander.

The lawsuit, filed last week by Ayman Abu Aita in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, seeks $110 million in damages.

In the movie, Mr. Baron Cohen plays a gay Austrian fashion journalist named Bruno trying to make it big in the United States. To achieve worldwide fame, he travels to the Middle East to make peace. He interviews Mr. Abu Aita, and a caption labels the Bethlehem shopkeeper as a member of the militant Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade.

Mr. Abu Aita is suing CBS and Mr. Letterman’s company Worldwide Pants Inc. over an interview before the film’s release in which the “Late Show” host and Mr. Baron Cohen discussed Bruno’s encounter with a “terrorist.”

In the interview, Mr. Baron Cohen, 37, said he set up the meeting in the West Bank with the help of a CIA agent. Mr. Baron Cohen said he feared for his safety and interviewed the “terrorist” at a secret location chosen by Mr. Abu Aita. A clip then was played on the program.

According to the lawsuit, however, the interview with Mr. Abu Aita took place at a hotel chosen by Mr. Baron Cohen and located in a part of the West Bank that was under Israeli military control.

Film distributor NBC Universal and director Larry Charles are also named in the lawsuit.

A spokeswoman for Universal Studios declined to comment. Tom Keaney, a spokesman for Mr. Letterman, also said he would not comment.

Mr. Baron Cohen, a British comedian, faced multiple lawsuits after his 2006 movie, “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan,” including one for $30 million filed by residents of a remote Romanian village who said they had been misled into thinking the project was a documentary about poverty. Most of the lawsuits were thrown out.

Mr. Abu Aita is a prominent businessman, a Christian and a “peace-loving person who abhors violence,” his lawsuit states. Before the film, he “enjoyed a good reputation for honesty and a peaceable nature” in his community,” his attorneys have written.

They add that any accusations or insinuations that Mr. Abu Aita is or ever was associated with the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade or any other terrorist activity is “utterly false and untrue.”

Attorney Joseph Peter Drennan said Mr. Abu Aita was never offered a release to sign to appear in the film.

“This is an important lawsuit because it is about the dignity of a specific person. It is about his reputation, about his standing in the community,” Mr. Drennan said.

“It addresses a very corrosive and calumnious slur against any young Palestinian who would be a political activist on the West Bank” who would be called a “terrorist” because of his activism.

Hatem Abu Ahmad, Mr. Abu Aita’s Arab-Israeli lawyer, said Mr. Baron Cohen made millions “on the back of my client.”

The film drew disdain from the Israelis and Palestinians portrayed in a place Bruno calls “Middle Earth.”

Mr. Abu Ahmad has said the gay associations in the movie could cause danger for Mr. Abu Aita.

“This joke is very dangerous. We are not in the United States, we are not in Europe,” he said. “We are in the Middle East, and the world operates differently here.”

An Alabama pastor who tries to talk Bruno out of being gay in the movie has said he was duped into appearing in the film through phone calls and fake Internet sites set up by Mr. Baron Cohen’s cohorts. Pastor Jody Trautwein said he thought he was helping a German TV crew.

Mr. Drennan said he expects a hearing on the Abu Aita complaint in late January.

Associated Press writer Ben Hubbard in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed to this report.

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