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From Cramped Office, Students Accomplish Major Change in Law

Rights Group Plays Key Role in Terrorism Case

By Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 3, 2005; Page DZ11

The caller dialing the tiny Washington-based human rights group was desperate.

A local woman, she said she had sought help from all the big, high-profile groups advocating human rights and civil liberties, hoping to get her brother out of a Saudi Arabia prison and back on U.S. soil. The Falls Church man had been held there without charges for months, Tasneem Abu Ali explained, and the family had evidence that the United States government had sent him there to be interrogated outside the reach of American law.

American University students Sheku Sheikholeslami, left, and Sapna Lalmalani successfully argued that federal courts should review the case of a man detained by the Saudi government. (James M. Thresher -- The Washington Post)

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Yet all the big advocacy groups, most based in New York, turned her down. Loser case, they said. Sorry, they told her, you have no chance of successfully challenging the United States on behalf of a person held in a foreign prison.

Sheku Sheikholeslami, the 21-year-old intern answering the phone that day last June, thought the case had promise. So did her boss, Morton Sklar, executive director of the cramped, slightly disheveled K Street office of the World Organization for Human Rights USA.

Fresh from one year at American University's law school, Sheikholeslami was among a group of seven unpaid interns on the nonprofit's small staff that summer. During the call, she began furiously jotting down notes in the paper-strewn conference room, which she and the other interns shared as an office. She called Sklar and had him listen in as the woman recounted the story: a brother arrested while taking a test at a Saudi university where he was studying Islam, an FBI agent who had testified in a related case that her brother had admitted to Saudi interrogators that he was part of a Virginia jihad network of aspiring terrorists.

"Within a few minutes, my gut was telling me this was a rendition to torture case," Sheikholeslami said, referring to a U.S. practice of transferring terrorism suspects to foreign countries known for torturing prisoners in interrogations. "It was extremely important -- it involved a U.S. citizen held without charges -- and it was an extremely important opportunity for our organization, as well."

The imprisoned student, Ahmed Abu Ali, 23, a former valedictorian of a local Islamic school, may or may not have done something criminal, the human rights organization's staff thought. But as a U.S. citizen, he had a right to know the charges against him, if any, to have access to lawyers and to be afforded the protections of the American justice system.

At the time, Abu Ali's name meant nothing to Sheikholeslami. But over the next several months, his case would consume her life, that of fellow AU intern Sapna Lalmalani and the tiny organization that agreed to champion his quest for freedom.

Since December, when Abu Ali won a crucial victory, his name and likeness have been splashed on the front pages of newspapers across the country, his case characterized by legal scribes as a national test of how much the United State government can restrict civil liberties to prevent future terrorist attacks.

The victory came when U.S. District Judge John D. Bates ordered the government to begin answering questions about its possible role in Abu Ali's detention. Within a few weeks, the government brought Abu Ali back to the United States. He was publicly charged last week with making a verbal threat to kill President Bush.

The government alleges that Abu Ali had discussions with militants about killing Bush while in Saudi Arabia. The government has since acknowledged that the case is hampered because one purported witness to the threat is dead and information provided by the defendant was obtained in a foreign prison.

While a U.S. court must weigh whether Abu Ali plotted terrorist acts, the World Organization is celebrating the case as largely a success because the government backed down.

Clients who are unpopular, and cases that seem to have little chance, are the common thread in the work of this group, an American affiliate of the World Organization for Human Rights and formerly known as the World Organization Against Torture.

About to mark its 10th anniversary, the organization is proud of being contrarian.

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