U.S. Presses for Release of American Held in Ethiopia

By Dafna Linzer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 23, 2007

A U.S. citizen who was arrested in East Africa in January and has been held successively by Kenyan, Somali and now Ethiopian authorities without charges should be returned to his family in the United States, U.S. officials said yesterday.

Amir Meshal, 24, of Tinton Falls, N.J., was among dozens of people picked up by the Kenyan military on Jan. 12 as they fled a U.S-backed Ethiopian invasion into neighboring Somalia. According to officials in the State Department, the FBI and Meshal's congressional office, Meshal was transferred from the border to the Kenyan capital of Nairobi, where he was held and questioned.

Meshal's activities in the region at the time are unclear. Mohammed Meshal said in an interview that his son had not told the family he was traveling to Somalia. Instead, Amir Meshal said he had been working in Dubai as a tour guide but planned to move to Egypt, where the cost of living was lower and where he had worked previously for an Internet company. At the time, Somalia was a magnet for Islamic extremists drawn there last winter to back a militant movement that had taken control of the country.

Family members said they last heard from him in late December. They were told of his whereabouts from two FBI field agents who came to their New Jersey home on Feb. 6 to inform them that their son had been arrested by Kenyan authorities for crossing into the country illegally from Somalia.

FBI agents and a representative from the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi questioned Meshal on Feb. 5 and found no reason for his continued detention, according to officials at the Justice and State departments. A second U.S. citizen, Daniel Maldonado, who was also arrested and held by the Kenyans, was indicted by the Justice Department Feb. 13 and was deported to the United States. He is awaiting trial in Texas for allegedly training with al-Qaeda.

But Special Agent Richard Kolko of the FBI said there are "no outstanding charges" against Meshal in the United States.

U.S. officials said they had been expecting Kenya to release Meshal. On Feb. 7, diplomats in the U.S. Embassy asked Mohammed Meshal to wire travel money for his son and to buy him a ticket from Nairobi to New York so he could return home. When the father called back the next day to confirm the arrangements, he was told by embassy staff members that his son's whereabouts were unknown.

"I called to say I got the ticket and they said they had lost contact with him," he said. "They said they thought the Kenyans sent him back to Somalia."

Tom Casey, the State Department's deputy spokesman, said: "Meshal was deported from Kenya without prior notification to the embassy, despite requests that any Americans held be deported to the U.S. We have formally protested this deportation with the Government of Kenya."

A Feb. 10 flight manifest obtained by a Kenyan human rights group shows Meshal was a passenger on a flight from Kenya to Baidoa, Somalia. Four British citizens, several Tunisians and Kenyan military personnel are also listed as on board. The plane is operated by Blue Bird Aviation, a privately owned company that does not appear to be affiliated with Kenyan or Somali authorities.

After being held by Somali and Ethiopian authorities for several days at an airstrip in Baidoa, Meshal was transferred to Ethiopia, where he remains in a jail in the capital, Addis Ababa.

McClatchy newspapers first reported last week that Meshal was in Ethiopia.

The fate of the Tunisians on the flight is unknown. The four British citizens were picked up by British authorities in Somalia, who arranged for their free transfer home.

One of the British citizens, Mohamed Ezzouck, told the London-based human rights group Reprieve that he, Meshal and the other prisoners were blindfolded, shackled and handcuffed during the flight to Baidoa and were held in an underground cell at the airstrip there. The British citizens, who said they were studying in Somalia at the time of the invasion, were flown home three days later on a Royal Air Force plane, questioned briefly upon their arrival in London and released.

Meshal's New York lawyer, Jonathan Hafetz, complained that British authorities were able to keep track of and free their own citizens but U.S. authorities were not. He said the failure to release Meshal has led to concerns by the family and human rights groups that the U.S. government may have secretly arranged or agreed to Meshal's transfer to Ethiopia in the hopes of getting more information out of him there. State Department reports have concluded that Ethiopia has a record of using harsh interrogation methods against prisoners.

An intelligence official said the CIA was not involved in Meshal's case, and the State Department said it had formally protested the transfer. It has not officially sought Meshal's extradition from Ethiopia, however.

U.S. officials said they learned of Meshal's transfer to Ethiopia in early March. FBI officials interviewed him March 12 at a jail in Addis Ababa, and an embassy representative visited him Wednesday.

Casey said Meshal reported "that he is in good health and did not claim any mistreatment while in Ethiopian custody. We understand that the Ethiopian government is planning to have a hearing soon on his status." A U.S. official said the government is hopeful the Ethiopians will release him after the hearing.

Meshal's congressman, Rush D. Holt (D-N.J.), said the United States "should insist that he be charged or released to U.S. custody. He is an American citizen being held in a friendly country without charge."

Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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