An American student charged with conspiring to kill President Bush testified yesterday that his Saudi captors chained him to the floor of an interrogation room, shackled his feet and whipped him so hard his back was bloody and throbbing with pain.
"They tore my shirt off, they tore it off my back, and I was being whipped on my bare back,'' Ahmed Omar Abu Ali, 24, said at a hearing to determine whether his confession to participating in an al Qaeda plot was elicited through torture. As the blows rained down on his back, Abu Ali testified, his jailers screamed, "Confess! Confess!"
The Falls Church man said he also was punched and kicked and had his hair and beard pulled soon after being arrested in Saudi Arabia in 2003. "I told them I would cooperate, and everything stopped, they stopped,'' he said, adding that his treatment improved before he was flown to Virginia to face terrorism charges in February.
His nearly three hours of testimony, before a packed courtroom in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, were the first public words from the defendant in one of the highest-profile terrorism cases of recent years. Abu Ali is charged with conspiring to kill Bush and other counts in connection with a terrorist plot to mount a Sept. 11-style attack inside the United States. The trial is set to begin Monday.
The case has raised novel legal questions about whether a complicated terrorism prosecution, in which the defendant claims he was tortured in a foreign country and most of the evidence was obtained in that country, can be brought in a U.S. courtroom. Prosecutors said Abu Ali confessed to the plot and planned to shoot Bush or blow him up with a car bomb. They deny that he was tortured.
Defense attorneys say Abu Ali's statements to the Saudis -- the crux of the government's case -- should be thrown out because they were obtained under duress. U.S. District Judge Gerald Bruce Lee has been weighing both sides during a hearing that started last week and is scheduled to end today.
The hearing has featured clashing opinions from experts on whether marks on Abu Ali's back probably were caused by whipping, and whether he suffered post-traumatic stress disorder from the alleged abuse.
Abu Ali grew agitated at times during a series of heated exchanges with prosecutors and said he could not recall how many times he was struck or with what object. He acknowledged that he did not seek medical attention afterward or tell U.S. State Department officials of the abuse when they visited him.
"What kind of object were you whipped with?'' Assistant U.S. Attorney David Laufman asked.
"I don't know. I didn't see it,'' Abu Ali responded.
"You have no idea what you were hit with. Is that your testimony under oath?'' Laufman asked.
"I just don't know what it was,'' Abu Ali said.
"So the most traumatic and memorable event in your life, and you're just at a loss to remember the most important details of the central part of your defense: that you were whipped?'' Laufman asked before being stopped by the judge.
Abu Ali, speaking in a mostly calm and clear voice that rose with emotion at times, said he felt "defeated and humiliated" after being whipped in a prison in Medina, Saudi Arabia, the second day after his arrest.
Afterward, he said, "I touched my back, and there was blood on my hands.''
He was soon transferred to a prison in Riyadh, where he said his cell was "actually decent" and included a bunk, faucet, shower, toilet, prayer rug and stool. "As you cooperate more, it just gets better,'' he said.
One morning, a Saudi jailer woke him, took him to a conference room and told him to read a confession. "He didn't tell me anything. He just said read it, so I did,'' Abu Ali said. A videotape of that interrogation, played in court last week, showed Abu Ali admitting that he joined the al Qaeda plot out of opposition to U.S. support for Israel.
Laufman began his cross-examination by saying: "You memorized your script pretty well, didn't you, Mr. Ali?'' The judge stopped Abu Ali from answering after defense attorneys objected.
Abu Ali accused Saudi officials, including the warden, of lying when they testified that he was treated humanely.
"The warden? I've never seen that man in my life,'' Abu Ali said.
"So he lied, too?'' Laufman asked.
"Yes, he did,'' Abu Ali said.
"Everyone is a liar except you?'' Laufman asked before again being stopped by the judge.
Laufman pointed out that Abu Ali had told Charles Glatz, a State Department consular officer who visited him in prison, that his treatment had been "kind and humane.''
"Is it your testimony that you lied to Mr. Glatz about how you were treated, or are you lying now?'' Laufman asked.
Abu Ali said he had lied to Glatz but had felt uncomfortable because Saudi officers were present for almost all of the interview.