U.S. Muslim's Case Poses Test for New Administration
Monday, March 23, 2009
One day last July, Naji Hamdan was summoned to the U.S. Embassy in the United Arab Emirates. He drove two hours through the desert heat from Dubai to answer questions from FBI agents who had arrived from Los Angeles, where Hamdan had gone to school, started a family, built a successful auto-parts business and become a U.S. citizen.
At his apartment six weeks later, he was awakened from a nap by men who bundled him into a black Chevrolet Suburban with tinted windows. Hamdan was told he was a prisoner of the UAE and was held in a cell painted glossy white to reflect the lights that burned round the clock, according to a note he wrote from prison. Between interrogations, he wrote, he was confined in a frigid room overnight, strapped into "an electric chair" and punched in the head until he lost consciousness.
In one session, the blindfolded prisoner recalled hearing a voice that sounded American. The voice said, "Do what they want or these people will [expletive] you up," Hamdan wrote.
The prisoner obliged, signing a confession that he later said meant only that he would do anything to make the pain stop. The case might have ended there but for Hamdan's U.S. citizenship and his American attorney's assertion that he was tortured "at the behest" of his own government.
"This is torture by proxy," said Ahilan Arulanantham, an American Civil Liberties Union staff lawyer representing Hamdan through his brother and wife. Noting that the UAE had shown no interest in Hamdan before arresting him, Arulanantham filed a habeas corpus petition in November in U.S. District Court in Washington. The petition alleges that the federal government used its influence to have Hamdan arrested and insists that it should use that influence to free him.
The evidence of U.S. involvement is circumstantial and sometimes ambiguous. Arulanantham said the UAE prosecutor in the case traveled to the United States in February. He said that a week after the habeas petition made public Hamdan's detention, custody was transferred to the UAE criminal justice system, where he faces nonspecific charges of "promoting terrorism." Justice Department lawyers say the transfer lines up with the expiration of a 90-day UAE limit on secret detention.
The FBI issued a statement saying it does not ask other governments to arrest people on its behalf, but in court papers it stops short of denying the involvement of any U.S. agency in Hamdan's detention.
"In terrorism matters, we routinely work with foreign counterparts," Richard Kolko, a bureau spokesman, said in a statement.
The United Arab Emirates' embassy in Washington declined to comment "since this is a police-security matter, which involves a U.S. citizen," a spokeswoman said in an e-mail.
In the long list of individuals accused, renditioned, arrested or otherwise detained since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the Hamdan case stands out. Three Americans are known to have been arrested by foreign governments at the apparent direction of U.S. authorities, each amid circumstances more suspicious than those surrounding Hamdan.
In 2007, Kenyan authorities detained Amir Meshal of Tinton, N.J., and Daniel Joseph Maldonado of Houston after they were captured among Islamist fighters fleeing a U.S.-backed offensive in Somalia. And Saudi Arabian security officers provided the bulk of the evidence against Ahmed Omar Abu Ali, a Falls Church man convicted in 2005 of plotting with al-Qaeda.
Though the events detailed by Hamdan's attorney occurred before President Obama was sworn in, human rights groups and others said they will monitor his response. Obama has declared that "the United States will not torture," and CIA Director Leon Panetta said in his confirmation hearings that the United States will not turn over suspects to governments that will abuse them.