A federal judge in Washington yesterday ordered U.S. officials to provide information on whether the U.S. government has had a role in the detention of a Northern Virginia man held without charges in Saudi Arabia for a year and a half.
In his written ruling, U.S. District Judge John D. Bates said he needs the information so he can decide whether his court has jurisdiction in the case. He rejected the government's request to dismiss the petition filed by the parents of Ahmed Abu Ali, a 23-year-old Falls Church resident and U.S. citizen who was arrested by the Saudis in June 2003 while studying in the kingdom.
Ahmed Abu Ali of Falls Church is being held in Saudi Arabia.
(Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)
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Legal experts called Bates's decision an important one in the U.S. war on terrorism. They said the judge essentially found that U.S. courts can decide whether detentions of U.S. citizens by foreign countries are justified, as long as there is evidence that the U.S. government had a hand in those detentions.
In other cases, federal judges have concluded that American courts have no authority to review the actions of foreign governments.
Abu Ali's parents contend that their son is being held by the Saudis at the behest of U.S. authorities. Their petition asks the court to order their son's release or his transfer to this country, where he can face charges if he has done anything wrong.
The Justice Department had argued that U.S. courts have no jurisdiction over the detention of a U.S. citizen by a foreign state, regardless of whether the United States was involved in the jailing.
Bates rejected that argument, writing that the government's "sweeping" position "would permit the executive, at his discretion, to deliver a United States citizen to a foreign country to avoid constitutional scrutiny, or, as is alleged and to some degree substantiated here, work through the intermediary of a foreign country to detain a United States citizen abroad."
The judge said that "a citizen cannot be so easily separated from his constitutional rights."
Charles Miller, a Justice Department spokesman, declined to comment on the ruling except to say that "we are reviewing the court's decision."
Omar Abu Ali, the father of the detained man, praised the ruling. "I feel happy that . . . our country, that they go for the justice," he said. "All the government did was a mistake, and they have to admit it."
Morton Sklar, executive director of the World Organization for Human Rights USA, which represents Abu Ali's family in its habeas corpus petition, called Bates's ruling "a very strong and very clear-cut rebuff to the U.S. government's effort to prevent judicial review" of its actions.
Legal experts said that Bates's decision expands upon two Supreme Court decisions this summer that allowed American and foreign detainees held at a U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to challenge their imprisonment.
"The U.S. government argued, 'Saudi Arabia is holding him, the Saudis have immunity from U.S. courts, end of story,' " said Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights. "But this court is saying that anytime the United States helps to detain anyone anywhere in the world, they can be forced to justify that detention in American courts."
In his 69-page ruling, Bates stressed that his court "is concerned with its jurisdiction to entertain the habeas petition of Abu Ali, not with the merits of the habeas petition itself."
He observed that his court would have authority over Abu Ali's detention if the information presented by Abu Ali's parents about an alleged U.S. role in their son's detention turns out to be true. He said that because U.S. government attorneys did not offer "evidence to rebut" most of the family's claims, he issued his order for the government to provide more information.
Bates told the two sides to reach an agreement by Jan. 10 on how this process, known as jurisdictional discovery, should unfold and to meet with him three days later.
Saudi and U.S. officials have yet to offer an explanation for Abu Ali's detention. Saudi officials initially suspected that he might be involved in terrorist activities, U.S. officials have said. The Saudi government, however, has indicated that it would consider handing him over to the United States if formally asked to do so by U.S. officials.
The FBI became interested in Abu Ali because he knew some of the 11 men in the so-called Virginia jihad network case. Those men were indicted, and nine were convicted, on weapons charges and charges of training with a terrorist group. Three of the defendants were arrested in Saudi Arabia about the same time as Abu Ali and extradited to the United States.