Relatives and other supporters of a Northern Virginia man held in a Saudi Arabian prison for more than a year demanded his release yesterday during a demonstration outside the State Department.
Ahmed Abu Ali, 23, a U.S. citizen who grew up in Falls Church and enrolled at a Saudi university, has been imprisoned since June 11, 2003. Although an FBI agent testified later last year that Abu Ali had links to the defendants in the so-called Virginia jihad network, no public charges have been filed against him, and Saudi and U.S. authorities have not offered any explanation for his detention.
Last week, an FBI official told members of the Falls Church mosque where Abu Ali worshipped that he did not know why the student was still in jail.
"Our hearts knew from Day One that he was wrongly targeted," and yet he "is still held hostage in a Saudi prison," his sister, Tasneem Abu Ali, said at yesterday's rally.
Behind her, supporters waved signs that said "Stop Playing Political Ping-Pong with Ahmed" and "Stop Farming Out Torture."
Ahmed Abu Ali's family, which gave interviews last fall about the case, has argued that he should be brought home to face trial in a U.S. court if he has done something wrong. Yet the family has been told repeatedly by FBI agents and federal prosecutors that they have no reason to file charges against him, his sister said.
Justice Department spokesman Mark Corallo said yesterday that he had no comment about the case.
Adel Al-Jubeir, foreign affairs adviser to Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah, said that "the Saudi position hasn't changed. The U.S. government is aware that Saudi Arabia is holding him and is aware why we're holding him. We haven't received any extradition request, and we would be willing to consider such a request when it was made."
Ashraf Nubani, a lawyer and a friend of the Abu Ali family, said that in private meetings, Saudi officials have indicated that they "have nothing on him and that the moment something formally comes from the Americans, [they] would release him."
"The Saudis are very clear that he is basically being held for the Americans," Nubani said.
State Department spokeswoman Kelly Shannon said she could not speak about the case because Abu Ali has not signed a privacy waiver authorizing release of information. She added that he is regularly visited by U.S. Embassy officials and that the State Department is "in regular contact" with his family and Saudi officials.
Saudi officials initially said Abu Ali was suspected of involvement in bombings in Riyadh in May 2003.
In July, his name surfaced during bond hearings for two of the defendants in the Virginia jihad conspiracy case prosecuted in U.S. District Court in Alexandria. An FBI agent testified at one hearing that Abu Ali told his Saudi interrogators that he had received military training from al Qaeda and aspired to be a planner of terrorist attacks against the United States. His family denies that he has any involvement or interest in terrorist activity.
Last week, Michael A. Mason, assistant director of the FBI's Washington field office, told members of Dar Al Hijrah mosque in Falls Church that he could not explain Abu Ali's continued detention.
"I don't speak for the entire U.S. government," Mason said. But, he added, when he asked agents in his office whether "we have a continuing interest in this individual . . . the answer I got was no."
Mason also said he had thought in early May that Abu Ali "was within a week of being released."
U.S. counterterrorism officials, speaking on the condition they not be identified, have given varying assessments of Abu Ali's importance as a terrorism suspect. One official called him "a player" with significant ties to al Qaeda; another said Abu Ali was "very peripheral."
After yesterday's protest, the Council on American Islamic Relations, a Muslim advocacy group, sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell asking that he look into Abu Ali's case, according to council lawyer Engy Abdelkader.
Abdelkader said that in recent meetings with council officials, U.S. and Saudi officials indicated that "there's nothing to charge him with. So we're wondering why the U.S. government can't ask for Ahmed's release. . . . It's very disturbing."