Student in ‘Rendition’ Case Returns to US for Trial

Even as defense attorneys were filing court papers charging that the U.S. government was hiding behind secret evidence, and demanding their client’s release from a Saudi Arabian prison, Ahmed Abu Ali was being whisked back to the United States and charged with conspiring to kill President George W. Bush.

The 23-year-old U.S. citizen, who had been detained in Saudi Arabia for 20 months as a suspected terrorist, was charged with plotting to assassinate Bush and with supporting the al-Qaeda terrorist network.

Abu Ali, 23, whose home is in Falls Church, Va., appeared in U.S. District Court this week but did not enter a plea. He contended that he was tortured while detained in Saudi Arabia since June 2003 and offered through his lawyer to show the judge his scars.

The federal indictment said that in 2002 and 2003, Abu Ali and an unidentified co-conspirator discussed plans for Abu Ali to assassinate Bush. They discussed two scenarios, the indictment said, one in which Abu Ali "would get close enough to the president to shoot him on the street" and, alternatively, "an operation in which Abu Ali would detonate a car bomb."

According to federal prosecutors, Abu Ali joined an al-Qaeda cell in Saudi Arabia in 2001. The alleged Bush plot occurred while he was studying in that country.

Abu Ali is charged with conspiracy to provide material support to al-Qaeda, providing material support to al-Qaeda, conspiracy to provide support to terrorists, providing material support to terrorists and contributing service to al-Qaeda If convicted, he could face up to 80 years in prison.

Virtually at the same time as Abu Ali was being secretly returned to the U.S. in government custody, lawyers representing his parents were filing court papers contending that U.S. officials were behind his detention by Saudi authorities and wanted him held in that country so he could be tortured for information.

The lawsuit brought on their behalf in U.S. District Court in Washington sought to compel the government to disclose what it knows about Abu Ali and his detention. The government then apparently filed a secret motion to have the case dismissed, and the defense team’s response was prepared without ever having seen the government’s motion.

David Cole of the Georgetown Law Center, one of Abu Ali’s attorneys, told IPS, "I’ve been involved in many secret evidence cases before, but never where a U.S. citizen’s liberty has been at stake. The government maintains that it can dispose of a legal challenge to a U.S. citizen’s detention without even allowing his lawyers to see the evidence or the argument being used against him. We are left to fight shadows."

Saudi authorities claimed that they had no case against Abu Ali and that his detention was at the behest of the U.S. government. The U.S. says it had nothing to do with his arrest or imprisonment, but has declined to publicly produce any evidence to document this claim. Agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) visited Ali during his detention.

In the brief filed on behalf of Ali’s parents, the defense contended that "no court at any level" has ever dismissed a case "where the physical liberty of a U.S. citizen is at stake. Courts have consistently held that reliance on secret evidence in proceedings where physical liberty is at stake violates due process."

The brief continued, "Nothing is more fundamental to the American system of justice than the notion that adversarial testing is the best way to avoid error and protect individual rights," the brief said. The government "cannot both keep evidence secret and use it affirmatively to block any legal challenge to the detention of a U.S. citizen."

The government has argued that U.S. courts have no jurisdiction over what happens to a U.S. citizen held abroad.

But Ali’s family charges that their son was a victim of "rendition," in which suspects are taken to, or held by, other countries and interrogated without the protection of U.S. laws. The practice is known to be used by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and other agencies. Frequently, the targets of rendition are sent to or detained by countries known to torture or abuse prisoners.

Abu Ali’s treatment has drawn strong editorial criticism from the mainstream media, including the Washington Post and the New York Times.

The Times said the Abu Ali case "seems to be another demonstration of what has gone wrong in the federal war on terror.If the Justice Department believed that Mr. Abu Ali was a serious terrorist, he should have been brought back here long ago for trial. Instead, he became part of an unknown number of prisoners who were swept up by American officials or foreign governments working with Americans and questioned in the wake of Sept. 11."

The Washington Post agreed that "however bad Mr. Abu Ali may be, secret law is unacceptable."

"Saudi security officials confirmed the use of some physical and psychological pressure tactics. An examination of the indictment does not reveal what evidence, if any, was gleaned directly or indirectly from coerced statements," the paper said.

"But the timing of the indictment, nearly two years after the arrest, suggests that U.S. authorities may be relying on evidence provided by the Saudis. The courts need to ensure that no evidence obtained by torture – with or without the connivance of the U.S. government – is used to convict people in U.S. courts."

Author: William Fisher

William Fisher writes for Inter Press Service.