By Karl Vick
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
Deborah Manning, an attorney for Alkarama, a human rights organization focused on the Middle East, said the case "bridges the practices of the past, and we hope we're in a new era, but this is a litmus test."
The torture accusations are from Hamdan's accounts to relatives and a handwritten eight-page note carried out of Abu Dhabi's Al Wathba prison by a U.S. diplomat required to check on the suspect's welfare.
After being beaten on the soles of his feet and kicked in the liver, Hamdan said, "I admitted to whatever they asked."
"Sometimes when he talks to me, he's crying," said Mona Mallouk, his wife, by phone from Beirut, where she went after the arrest with their two children, born in Los Angeles.
"When they beat him hard . . . his voice changed. I said 'Naji? Are you okay?' He said, 'No, I'm not okay. They hit me, badly. I don't know why, Mona.' "
Hamdan's family and associates said they are perplexed by the FBI's interest. The businessman was known to be religious, but in the mainstream vein of fellow Muslim students who set aside a dorm room as a mosque at Northrop-Rice University, where Hamdan studied aviation engineering in the 1980s.
After the worship space moved to downtown Hawthorne, Hamdan often presided during the holy month of Ramadan.
The FBI knocked on Hamdan's door in December 1999, when several other local Muslims were approached after the discovery of the "millennium plot" targeting Los Angeles International Airport. After Sept. 11, 2001, official attention became more routine, often in airport security lines.
"We get used to it," said Hossam Hemdan, Hamdan's brother, who runs a smog-inspection shop. "They always, always, always ask the same questions: How long you been living here? What's your business? What's the phone number?"
Hemdan said that as many as three Crown Victorias began following his brother in 2006. Jehad Suleman, a friend and business associate of Hamdan's in Los Angeles, said it was around that time when his own airport interrogators began asking him about Hamdan.
No one claims to know why. The ACLU encouraged Muslim residents to request their FBI files, and Hamdan was surprised to find that the agency had started his file in the mid-1990s, his relatives said.
The attention on Hamdan came from several directions. FBI agents visited his business, jotting down serial numbers on an acre of car parts. The IRS audited him twice.
Hamdan, 42, chafed at the surveillance, so conspicuous that the imam at the Hawthorne mosque asked him to keep his distance. But confidants said his decision to return to the Middle East was equally grounded in unease with Hawthorne's schools, where gangs and drugs remain problems.
In August 2006, Hamdan moved the family to Dubai. At the Los Angeles airport, he was questioned for so long that he missed his flight. When he returned in 2007 for a visit, the FBI surveillance was continuous, associates said.
Things were not going smoothly abroad, either. In early 2008, while waiting for a flight in Beirut, Hamdan was arrested and interrogated for four days by Lebanese authorities. Hamden said a lawyer the family later hired to examine the court file said his detention was at the request of "outside influences."
Last July, FBI agents passed a request to Hamdan to report to the embassy in Abu Dhabi, the UAE capital, then flew there to question him. "What did they want?" his brother recalled asking Hamdan, who he said replied: " 'Whatever they ask at the airport, same thing. You can't imagine how much they know about us. If you ever forget something in your life, a certain spot, call them. They'll tell you.' "
Six weeks later, the security police took him away, then returned to carry away all things electronic.
In Los Angeles, Hamdan's banker, Dan Suie, of the Asian Pacific Revolving Loan Fund, said an FBI agent delivered a subpoena in early January. The bureau wanted paperwork on loans for Hamdan's business, records the banker said contained nothing suspicious.
"I deal with people who, you know, shake their hands and count your fingers," Suie said. "But [Hamdan] was a very decent person, a very nice guy."
The mosque has mounted a campaign demanding Hamdan's return to the United States to face whatever charges he is suspected of.