Federal prosecutors denied yesterday that an American student charged in an al Qaeda plot to kill President Bush was tortured in Saudi Arabia and called him a "grave danger" to the United States.
In papers filed in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, U.S. Attorney Paul J. McNulty said that the student, Ahmed Omar Abu Ali, saw a doctor Monday and that the physician found no evidence of harm. The prosecutor said Abu Ali was allowed to play soccer and work out while in Saudi custody and called his allegations of mistreatment "an utter fabrication."
An attorney for Abu Ali said in court this week that his client was whipped and handcuffed while he was held in a Saudi prison from June 2003 until early this week. Saudi security sources said yesterday that officers had used physical and psychological pressure on Abu Ali to elicit information about al Qaeda cells and operations but that it stopped short of severe or prolonged torture. They said the FBI was not directly involved and compared the treatment to tactics used by U.S. military officers against suspected terrorist detainees.
"The defendant's claims of mistreatment are an utter fabrication intended to divert attention from his criminal involvement with an al-Qaeda cell in Saudi Arabia," McNulty said in the papers, which ask the court to keep Abu Ali incarcerated until his trial.
The emergence of torture allegations and of Abu Ali's conditions of confinement in a foreign country as issues so early in the legal proceedings are an indication of how complicated the case will be to prosecute, legal scholars said yesterday. It also underscores how difficult it can be to prosecute suspected terrorists in a U.S. courtroom, they said.
Abu Ali, 23, is charged with material support of al Qaeda in a plot to kill Bush and establish an al Qaeda cell in the United States. He is the first person charged in this country with supporting Osama bin Laden's organization in seven months. In all, there have been fewer than 20 similar al Qaeda prosecutions since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, according to legal experts who have been tracking them.
Michael Greenberger, a Justice Department official in the Clinton administration and now a law professor at the University of Maryland, called the Abu Ali prosecution "very messy." He said the case might not even have been prosecuted if not for a lawsuit, filed by Abu Ali's family against the government, seeking Abu Ali's return to the United States. A judge recently ordered the government to provide information on whether the United States had a role in Abu Ali's detention, which legal experts said could have subjected officials to depositions about any possible torture.
"They wanted to get out of that checkmate," Greenberger said.
Other experts said the government had to charge Abu Ali, regardless of the difficulty of case, or risk the release of someone who prosecutors say wanted to plan terror attacks against the United States.
Juliette Kayyem, executive director of the national security program at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, said the case underscores the complications of relying on evidence gained from foreign governments that don't observe U.S. legal standards. "How dirty are we willing to get our hands to prosecute an alleged terrorist?" she asked.
Abu Ali, a U.S. citizen and Houston native, grew up in Falls Church and was active in Northern Virginia's Muslim community. His family denies the charges against him and describes him as a student of Islam who went to Saudi Arabia to pursue his studies. He was enrolled at the University of Medina when Saudi authorities arrested him in June 2003 as part of a crackdown after the May 12, 2003, bombing of three Western residential compounds in Riyadh that killed 23 people.
But Abu Ali had come to the attention of U.S. authorities before his arrest in Saudi Arabia. Court papers and testimony tied him to the "Virginia jihad network" -- a group of men who trained for jihad against America overseas and by playing paintball in the Virginia countryside. Nine men eventually were convicted.
In 2003, FBI agent Jim R. Sobchack testified in federal court in Alexandria that Abu Ali "was a participant in some of the jihad training." He also foreshadowed charges in this week's indictment, saying Abu Ali had "explained to the Saudis that he was there to join an al Qaeda cell. And in fact, [he] had joined an al Qaeda cell and participated in weapons and explosives training."
Al Qaeda, Sobchack continued, "gave Mr. Ali a choice, and that is, he could either participate in a terrorist act or he could return to the United States and form an al Qaeda cell in the United States."