U.S. citizen sues over treatment in 'rendition'

Amir Meshal is shown in 2007, filling out a U.S. passport application at an Ethiopian National Intelligence and Security Service office.
Amir Meshal is shown in 2007, filling out a U.S. passport application at an Ethiopian National Intelligence and Security Service office. (Associated Press)
By Peter Finn
Wednesday, November 11, 2009

An American who was captured by Kenyan forces in January 2007 filed suit in U.S. District Court in Washington on Tuesday, arguing that FBI agents allegedly involved in his interrogation and transfer to other countries violated his constitutional rights.

The suit, brought on behalf of Amir Meshal by the American Civil Liberties Union, is the first by a U.S. citizen seeking damages for the practice of "rendition," the extrajudicial transfer of terrorist suspects between countries.

Meshal, who is now back in his home state of New Jersey, has never been charged with a crime.

"U.S. officials repeatedly threatened Mr. Meshal with torture, forced disappearance, and execution in order to coerce him to confess to wrongdoing in which he had not engaged and to associations that he did not have," according to the lawsuit, which targets two FBI agents, identified as Chris Higgenbotham and Steve Hersem, and two unidentified U.S. officials who allegedly questioned Meshal in Kenya and Ethiopia.

A spokesman for the FBI declined to comment, citing the Justice Department's policy in civil litigation cases.

Meshal, a Muslim born to Egyptian parents, traveled to Somalia in 2006 "to enrich his study of Islam," according to the lawsuit. Mogadishu, the Somali capital, had recently come under the control of a militia known as the Islamic Courts Union. Later that year, the U.S.- and Ethiopian-backed Transitional Federal Government of Somalia launched a military offensive and took back the city.

As he fled the fighting, Meshal was picked up in Kenya, near the Somali border, and held at the behest of U.S. officials, often in filthy and crowded cells, according to the lawsuit. He was repeatedly questioned by FBI agents who threatened to send him to Israel or Egypt unless he acknowledged ties to al-Qaeda, the lawsuit alleges.

Meshal signed a document waiving counsel, but the lawsuit claims that the FBI told him doing so was the only way he would get home, effectively leaving him no choice.

When a Kenyan human rights group filed a habeas petition on behalf of Meshal and other foreigners picked up at the border with Somalia, the American was secretly flown back to Somalia, where he was held for a number of days, before being taken to Ethiopia. He was also questioned repeatedly by U.S. agents in Ethiopia before finally being allowed to return to the United States on May 26, 2007, the suit says.

Previous lawsuits challenging U.S. rendition policies and alleging torture and abuse have had little success in the courts, but Jonathan Hafetz, one of Meshal's attorneys, said the case is significant, in part, because a U.S. citizen is bringing it.

"The harsh treatment and mental anguish this individual suffered should never be experienced by anyone, let alone an American citizen at the hands of his own government," Hafetz said. "This violation of basic constitutional rights must be remedied."

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