US Citizen Tortured in Saudi Arabia – at US Govt’s Behest?

NEW YORK – Human rights groups are rallying behind a Virginia student who has been held without charges in a Saudi Arabian jail since June 2003, allegedly at the behest of the U.S. government.

In court proceedings brought by the student’s family, a U.S. federal judge has given the Department of Justice until Jan. 31 to respond to an order to provide information on whether it played a role in the detention of 23-year-old Ahmed Abu Ali, who has been accused of having terrorist ties.

But in a surprise legal maneuver, government attorneys argued last week that federal privacy restrictions bar the public release of government documents concerning Abu Ali, and the judge in the case agreed.

The Justice Department has refused to comment on the case.

"Reports that FBI [Federal Bureau of Investigation] officials tortured Ahmed Abu Ali are extremely alarming and we are calling on the U.S. and Saudi authorities to act quickly to now guarantee his safety," said Kate Allen, director of Amnesty International UK.

"Ahmed should be given full access to lawyers and consular officials, and unless properly charged he should be immediately released," she said in a statement Tuesday.

"What is all the more alarming about this case is the fact that it comes after reports of detainees under American control being sent to countries in the Middle East for interrogation and torture."

Democratic Congressman Edward Markey, a senior member of the Homeland Security Committee of the House of Representatives, has also spoken out on Abu Ali’s behalf.

"If this is true, this is another example of the Justice Department asking other countries to torture prisoners for us," Markey said. "But this time it involves an American citizen."

Last month, District Judge John Bates ordered U.S. officials to provide further information so he can decide whether his court has jurisdiction in the case.

But in last week’s hearing, the government invoked the Privacy Act, which specifies that documents cannot be made public without the consent of the individual concerned. Abu Ali has apparently signed a limited waiver of his privacy rights, which would allow access for his family and parents only, said the family’s attorney, Morton Sklar.

Some civil liberties experts said that Judge Bates’ decision to bar public release of documents in the case runs counter to the intent of the federal Privacy Act.

"If the government has the documents but claims that it cannot release them publicly because it will affect Abu Ali’s privacy, then the government should file those documents with the court under seal," Brian J. Foley, a professor at the Florida Coastal School of Law, told IPS.

"That way, the public will not be able to have access to them, but the judge will. Such procedures to protect people’s privacy while giving the judge the required information are done in U.S. courts every day," he said. "It’s ironic that the government would go so far to protect Abu Ali’s privacy rights, apparently at the expense of his liberty."

The documents in the government’s possession go to the heart of this byzantine case.

Born in Houston, Texas, Abu Ali was reportedly arrested by Saudi Arabian authorities in June 2003 while taking an exam at the Islamic University in Medina. He has had no access to legal counsel or to family members, and only intermittent visits by U.S. consular officials.

It is not clear whether he has been charged with a crime, nor is it clear when, or if, he will be put on trial. A federal agent reportedly made reference to Abu Ali being tortured in detention, but the government now denies that claim.

The United States says it had nothing to do with Abu Ali’s detention, although three federal agents reportedly questioned him soon after his arrest. Saudi officials say they are holding him at the request of the State Department and would be glad to release him if there was a request from the United States.

Two months after his arrest, in September 2003, he was interrogated by U.S. agents, who reportedly threatened to declare him an "enemy combatant" and send him to Guantanamo Bay. He was then placed in solitary confinement for three months.

With the help of Sklar, a prominent civil rights attorney and executive director of Human Rights USA, Abu Ali’s parents sued the U.S. government last August, asking a federal judge to order a hearing on their son’s detention.

Their case relied on Supreme Court rulings concerning prisoners being held in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and a U.S. citizen, Yaser Hamdi. These decisions affirmed that, even in wartime, the president does not have a "blank check" to detain people without due process.

While the Justice Department contended that U.S. courts lacked jurisdiction over cases involving U.S. citizens in foreign custody, Judge Bates disagreed.

He rejected the notion that "when the United States acts against citizens abroad, it can do so free of the Bill of Rights," and ordered the Justice Department to produce evidence establishing what role, if any, U.S. officials played in Abu Ali’s arrest and detention.

The Washington Post reported on July 30, 2004 that the Saudi embassy said in an e-mail that a senior Saudi official had issued the following statement: Abu Ali "is being detained with the full knowledge and support of the U.S. government. There is an ongoing investigation regarding this individual. At this time, we have received no request for extradition."

More recently, the Post reported, Abu Ali was told by Saudi authorities that his trial on charges related to terrorism was approaching. U.S. officials have not facilitated legal representation, nor have they discovered what, if anything, he has been charged with. U.S interest in Abu Ali stems from an alleged connection to a now-concluded Virginia terrorism case. During a July 2003 bail hearing for one of the Virginia defendants, Sabri Benkhala, he said Abu Ali was an associate of his who had allegedly confessed to belonging to al-Qaeda during interrogations that were conducted by Saudi Arabian authorities and observed by the FBI.

Benkhala was acquitted of the charges.

Author: William Fisher

William Fisher writes for Inter Press Service.