A federal judge yesterday refused to throw out statements made by a Northern Virginia terrorism suspect who said he was tortured in a Saudi prison, meaning that Ahmed Omar Abu Ali will go on trial today on charges of plotting to kill President Bush.
The decision by U.S. District Judge Gerald Bruce Lee is a major blow to the defense of Abu Ali, 24, who is charged with multiple counts in one of the highest-profile terrorism cases in recent years. Abu Ali's statements to his Saudi jailers, in which he admitted being part of an al Qaeda plot, are central to the government's case.
Lee did not give a reason for his one-sentence ruling, filed late yesterday in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, but said he will issue a detailed opinion later. Jury selection in the case is scheduled to start today.
The ruling marks a legal victory for the Justice Department, which brought the complicated case under circumstances that are unusual in a U.S. courtroom: Most of the evidence was obtained in a foreign country, and the defendant claims to have been tortured while a prisoner in that country.
Prosecutors declined to comment yesterday. Defense lawyers did not return phone calls. The defense can appeal yesterday's ruling, but only if Abu Ali is convicted.
The decision culminated a six-day hearing in which the judge weighed Abu Ali's allegations that he was tortured before being flown back to Alexandria in February to face terrorism charges. The Falls Church man testified that his Saudi captors chained him to the floor of an interrogation room, shackled his feet and whipped him until his back was bloody and throbbing with pain.
He said that the Saudis screamed "Confess! Confess!" as they whipped him and that his confession was therefore coerced and should be thrown out.
Prosecutors argued that Abu Ali was lying and pointed to what they called holes in his story, such as his inability to remember what type of object he was whipped with and the fact that he did not seek medical attention afterward. Saudi officials had testified earlier in depositions that Abu Ali was well treated.
The hearing also featured clashing opinions from experts about whether marks on Abu Ali's back were caused by whipping and whether he suffered post-traumatic stress disorder from the alleged abuse.
Abu Ali is charged with conspiracy to assassinate President Bush and other terrorism counts in connection with the alleged al Qaeda plot, which prosecutors say envisioned a Sept. 11-style attack in the United States that would include hijacking planes. Prosecutors say that Abu Ali admitted his participation and that he planned to shoot the president or blow him up with a car bomb. He admitted that the plan never got past the idea stage, prosecutors have said in court papers.
If convicted on the assassination count alone, Abu Ali faces up to life in prison. In a videotaped statement played during the hearing, he said he joined the al Qaeda plot out of anger at U.S. support for Israel.
In closing arguments at the hearing last week, defense attorney Khurrum Wahid said that allowing into evidence statements brought about by torture was antithetical to the American system of justice. "We decided some time ago that this nation is not going to accept evidence that violates the accepted norms of our society," he said. "The actions taken by others that offend our constitutional principles have to offend them whether taken here or abroad."
But Assistant U.S. Attorney David Laufman criticized Abu Ali's testimony as vague and evasive and said the judge should not believe him.
"The evidence makes it clear, your honor, that the defendant's claim is an utter fabrication," Laufman said. "He has every incentive to concoct a story that his confession was coerced, and this is precisely what he has done."