A Falls Church couple who contend that U.S. authorities are responsible for the year-long detention of their 23-year-old son in Saudi Arabia filed a petition yesterday in federal court in Washington seeking his release.
In papers filed in U.S. District Court, Omar and Faten Abu Ali are requesting that Ahmed Abu Ali, their U.S.-born son, who was arrested in June 2003 while studying in Saudi Arabia, be returned to this country. If he has done something wrong, they say, he should be tried in a U.S. court.
The couple's petition argues that their son's detention is an example of "extraordinary rendition," a practice in which U.S. authorities transfer individuals suspected of terrorist connections to foreign intelligence services that often use coercive interrogation techniques illegal in this country.
Although U.S. authorities "did not send . . . Abu Ali to Saudi Arabia," the court papers state, "they accomplished the same objective as the rendition for interrogation policy by requesting their agents, Saudi officials, to arrest, detain, and interrogate him in furtherance of U.S. interests."
Morton Sklar, executive director of the World Organization for Human Rights USA, a human rights group assisting Abu Ali's family with the petition, said, "We've been looking for a case to directly challenge the practice of rendition to torture . . . to stop the policy itself."
The court papers name Attorney General John D. Ashcroft, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and several FBI agents as the U.S. officials responsible for Abu Ali's extended detention.
Department of Justice spokesman Charles Miller said that he had not seen the petition but that "when we do respond, it would be in court." FBI spokesman William Carter said, "If there has been a habeas corpus filing, that precludes us from making any comment on it." State Department spokesman Edgar Vasquez said, "We have not yet seen the lawsuit, but we do not normally comment on ongoing legal matters." Brian Roehrkasse, a Homeland Security spokesman, also declined to comment, citing "pending litigation."
Adel Al-Jubeir, foreign affairs adviser to Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah, could not be reached for comment. Previously, Jubeir said that the U.S. government is aware of why Saudi Arabia is holding Abu Ali and that his government "would be willing to consider" an extradition request "when it was made."
The exact number of people "rendered" or moved to foreign countries with U.S. assistance is unknown, but two cases have received widespread publicity.
Canadian citizen Maher Arar -- who U.S. authorities alleged had links to al Qaeda -- was sent from a New York airport to Syria last year, where Arar said he was tortured for 10 months before being released. And in late 2001, two Egyptians living in Sweden were kidnapped and flown to Egypt with U.S. assistance.
Abu Ali's case is different in that he is an American citizen and was already in the country where he is now detained.
"I'm sure the U.S. government's approach to this is going to be to say he is being detained by a foreign government and we don't have anything to do with it," Sklar said. "But the evidence contradicts it. . . . There are so many indications that the U.S. government was causing this."
Abu Ali's parents, who emigrated from Jordan, say in their petition that a U.S. consular officer in Riyadh informed the State Department that a senior Saudi official had "indicated to him that Ahmed Abu Ali could be returned to the U.S. at any time if the U.S. issued a formal request."
At a May 14 meeting, State Department employee Matthew Gillen told the family "that no current investigation of Ahmed Abu Ali by either the U.S. or Saudi Arabian government was taking place" and that he would "make the formal request to Saudi Arabia necessary for [it] to release him," the petition asserts. But in a June 21 meeting, it adds, Gillen said he could not make that request "due to an investigation taking place in the Department of Justice."
The court papers disclose that prosecutors subpoenaed "numerous witnesses who were friends or acquaintances" of Abu Ali to a grand jury about seven months ago and that in May, FBI agents and federal prosecutors from Alexandria again "sought to interview" Abu Ali in Saudi Arabia. The family alleges that U.S. officials "have sought to coerce" Abu Ali, who also has Jordanian citizenship, into "abandoning his U.S. citizenship so that he could be sent to Sweden or some other country."
U.S. officials have declined to give an explanation for Abu Ali's lengthy detention. But their interest in him appears to stem from alleged ties to some of the 11 Northern Virginia men accused in federal court in Alexandria of undertaking paramilitary training to wage "violent jihad" on behalf of Muslims abroad. Two of those men were also accused of conspiring to support al Qaeda.
Three of the defendants, all U.S. citizens, were arrested in Saudi Arabia at the same time as Abu Ali and brought back to the United States. At a bond hearing for one of them in 2003, an FBI agent testified that Abu Ali had told his Saudi interrogators that he had joined an al Qaeda cell in Saudi Arabia and wanted to plan terrorist attacks.
But Abu Ali was not charged in the Alexandria case. And late last year, U.S. counterterrorism officials who spoke on the condition that they not be identified gave varying assessments of his importance as a terrorism suspect. One official called him "a player" with significant ties to al Qaeda; another said he was "very peripheral."