Thursday, February 24, 2005

America's "War on Terror" nets man accused by a dead man

Last week I noted America might be stretching the limits in our War on Terror. We might be flying suspects to other countries so they can be "interviewed" outside of the constraints placed on American interrogators. We might be using sex as a weapon. We might be accidentally killing suspects and detainees.

The news of the last twenty-four hours is interesting if you read between the lines.

First, Ahmed Abu Ali was brought to Federal Court to hear charges against him. He's accused of conspiring to kill the President. Here's the long of it, as reported yesterday in the New York Daily News.
A 23-year-old American was hit yesterday with a six-count federal indictment accusing him of plotting to kill President Bush.
Ahmed Abu Ali, the Houston-born son of a longtime computer technician at the Saudi Embassy in Washington, also was accused of wanting to set up an Al Qaeda cell in the United States.

"It was defendant Abu Ali's intent to become a planner of terrorist operations like Mohamed Atta and Khalid Shaikh Mohammed," the men who planned 9/11, the federal indictment said.

He allegedly discussed a Bush assassination plot with an unnamed Al Qaeda member, either using a car bomb or "getting close enough to the President to shoot him on the street."

Valedictorian of the Islamic Saudi Academy in Alexandria, Va., Abu Ali was arrested in June 2003 during a final exam at his university in the Saudi city of Medina. He was held without charges in a Saudi jail, where he claims he was allegedly tortured into confessing.

This week he was hastily brought back to Virginia and the feds unveiled a sweeping indictment alleging he aggressively cast his lot with Al Qaeda in the wake of 9/11.

Ali is alleged to have associated with two men who later landed on Saudi Arabia's wanted terrorist lists; received training in weapons, including hand grenades; was given Al Qaeda money to buy a laptop and cell phone, and made a failed attempt to get to Afghanistan to fight the U.S. there.
When I first read this story, I honed in on the "He allegedly discussed a Bush assassination plot with an unnamed Al Qaeda member, either using a car bomb or 'getting close enough to the President to shoot him on the street.'" And I started thinking: hell, I've discussed on this very blog ways to terrorize Hampton Roads and take out critical transportation hubs. I wonder if I'm afoul of some law.
In an affidavit last September, Omar Abu Ali (the suspect's father) said prosecutors in another case had mentioned that his son had confessed under Saudi interrogation to wanting to be an Al Qaeda planner. "The confessions he made were alarming and completely uncharacteristic of him," he wrote.

Even if he made the threats alleged, Daily News sources downplayed the seriousness of the threat against Bush's life, describing Abu Ali's alleged tough talk as only slightly more serious than an idle threat by a barroom drunk.
Okay. So now we know he confessed to wanting to be an Al Qaeda planner. Hmmm, I want to be a con man and thief like Danny Ocean. Does that mean I'm going to get arrested? And, law enforcement sources downplayed the actual seriousness of this young man's threats and actions, likening them to a barroom drunk. Hmmm, I'm not going there right now. And then there's allegations of torture.
"It's all lies," said his father, Omar Abu Ali of Falls Church, Va. "The government lied from the very first day." Abu Ali's parents said their son was a good boy and the charges are just the product of torture.

In court in Virginia, Abu Ali offered to show the judge scars on his back.

The judge declined.

"I can assure you that you will not suffer any other torture or humiliation while in the marshal's custody," Judge Liam O'Grady told the defendant, who is due to enter a plea of not guilty...
Well, thank goodness Abu Ali is here in America.
Ahmed Abu Ali has become the poster child for accusations that the United States is "outsourcing torture."

The Virginia man had been held without charges since his arrest in Saudi Arabia in 2003, reportedly at the direction of the FBI.

His family sued the federal government last year, alleging that Abu Ali was a gentle bookish man who was being tortured by the Saudis at the behest of America, despite the lack of charges against him in either country.

Family members alleged in court papers that when they asked Assistant U.S. Attorney Gordon Kromberg to help get Abu Ali back home, he had "smirked" and said, "He's no good for us here, he has no fingernails left."

A judge denied the government's attempts to dismiss the family's lawsuit and in December ordered the government to show whether the claims by Abu Ali's family were true.

Until the last three months, when he was held incommunicado, the family talked to Abu Ali by phone every other week.

"His calls were monitored by prison guards who would hurt him if he merely said his food was bland, so he could not tell us what was going on," his 22-year-old sister, Tasneem Abu-Ali, said last year.

"He was constantly confused, disoriented and unable to finish sentences. I often wondered if he was drugged," she said. "He told us to forget about him, to consider him on a long trip in a wild jungle."

Anti-torture activists who have been fighting to get Abu Ali released questioned why the government didn't lodge the Al Qaeda charges months or even years ago.

"It raises serious questions about why the government did not request that Ahmed be returned earlier," said Jenny-Brook Condon, an attorney with the World Organization for Human Rights. "Our concern now is that evidence that was acquired through his ill treatment not be used against him," said Amnesty International's Alastair Hodgett.
I wonder if he has fingernails left.

Of course, government officials deny the whole torture thing. Can you blame them?
But the Justice Department, in its latest filing yesterday, denied that Abu Ali had been mistreated and said he never made any claims of abuse to U.S. officials as he was being returned to the United States on Monday.
And The Washington Post reports:
Federal prosecutors denied yesterday that an American student charged in an al Qaeda plot to kill President Bush was tortured in Saudi Arabia and called him a "grave danger" to the United States.

In papers filed in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, U.S. Attorney Paul J. McNulty said that the student, Ahmed Omar Abu Ali, saw a doctor Monday and that the physician found no evidence of harm. The prosecutor said Abu Ali was allowed to play soccer and work out while in Saudi custody and called his allegations of mistreatment "an utter fabrication."
Hmmm... I'm waiting for him to show the Judge his scars.
An attorney for Abu Ali said in court this week that his client was whipped and handcuffed while he was held in a Saudi prison from June 2003 until early this week. Saudi security sources said yesterday that officers had used physical and psychological pressure on Abu Ali to elicit information about al Qaeda cells and operations but that it stopped short of severe or prolonged torture. They said the FBI was not directly involved and compared the treatment to tactics used by U.S. military officers against suspected terrorist detainees.

"The defendant's claims of mistreatment are an utter fabrication intended to divert attention from his criminal involvement with an al-Qaeda cell in Saudi Arabia," McNulty said in the papers, which ask the court to keep Abu Ali incarcerated until his trial.

The emergence of torture allegations and of Abu Ali's conditions of confinement in a foreign country as issues so early in the legal proceedings are an indication of how complicated the case will be to prosecute, legal scholars said yesterday. It also underscores how difficult it can be to prosecute suspected terrorists in a U.S. courtroom, they said.
I'm thinking they'd deny they had anything to do with Saudi Arabia holding him. And I love this line: they'd stopped short of severe or prolonged torture. So, I'm thinking that being handcuffed for days on end, perhaps being handcuffed in uncomfortable positions, and getting whipped on the back aren't severe or prolonged torture. Hmmmm... If I tried that on my children, I'd be tossed in jail. Were I to do it to a friend, I'd end up in jail (unless, of course, my friend was kinky and wanted me to do it to them... oh, perhaps that's it: Abu Ali is a bit of a freak and wanted his jailers to do that to him).

All is not lost, however, for this young man. The Judge appears to see a truth that doesn't agree with representatives from the Executive Branch.
In a brief court session, U.S. District Judge John Bates anticipated that the family would press the lawsuit that the government seeks to dismiss. The judge set up a schedule over the next two weeks for both sides to file more court papers.

The judge wrote in December that there was "at least some circumstantial evidence that Abu Ali has been tortured during interrogations with the knowledge of the United States."

In addition, Bates wrote that Abu Ali's family said a U.S. diplomat reported to them that Abu Ali said FBI agents who questioned him threatened to send him to the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Outside the courtroom, Omar Abu Ali said he knew his son was being tortured at the Alhair prison in Riyadh because of the words the young man blurted out in his first phone call home after being arrested.

"I've been on a long trip in a wild jungle," Omar Abu Ali said his son told him. The father said he was terrified by the call because he knew it was code that he was being tortured.
And, then, I have to wonder. If I'd set up a code word to transmit to my father information that I'd been tortured, was I expecting it?

Moving on, it seems that a dead man is what set this current case into motion.

The source of one of the most sensational accusations against an American allegedly involved in a plot to kill President Bush is dead.

According to the most recent government filings in the case against Ahmed Omar Abu Ali that advocate his pretrial detention, the Virginia resident discussed a plot to kill the president with a member of Al Qaeda who was later killed in a shootout with Saudi law enforcement around September 2003.
From beyond the grave we hear words. I'm wondering how Abu Ali can argue against a dead man's supposed words.

I'll end here for today with an editorial from The Washington Post. Food for thought:
FOR NEARLY two years, Ahmed Omar Abu Ali was imprisoned in Saudi Arabia without charge, allegedly at the behest of the United States. The U.S. government has not clarified what role it played in the detention of this U.S. citizen. Indeed, in seeking to dismiss a civil case brought by Mr. Abu Ali's parents, the government relied not only on secret evidence but on secret legal theory as well. The government's behavior remains a mystery, but this week the Justice Department revealed its case against Mr. Abu Ali, who has at last been transferred to U.S. custody. According to an indictment issued early this month but kept under seal until this week, Mr. Abu Ali conspired to provide support to Al Qaeda, seeking to become a "planner of terrorist operations like Muhammad Atta and Khalid Sheikh Muhammad." The indictment alleges, among other things, that he "discussed plans" with figures associated with the group to assassinate President Bush.

Mr. Abu Ali's indictment remedies one disturbing feature of his case: He is no longer being held without charge by a regime with little regard for human rights, but by his own government under an indictment that must be proven in a court of law. If U.S. officials played an improper role in initiating or sustaining his detention, a judicial forum now exists in which to air those allegations. His case can be adjudicated in the regular order, without the alarming secrecy the Bush administration has employed to date.

How the indictment relates to the government's still-secret arguments in Mr. Abu Ali's civil case remains unclear. That case may now be moot, since it challenges a detention whose circumstances have so radically shifted. But any dismissal should be based on filings in the public record, not secret motions and evidence. However bad Mr. Abu Ali may be, secret law is unacceptable to the American legal tradition and must not gain a foothold.

Moreover, even as Mr. Abu Ali's indictment solves one problem, it potentially creates another. Mr. Abu Ali has alleged that he was tortured by the Saudis; federal prosecutors denied this claim yesterday, but, according to Post staff writers Jerry Markon and Steve Coll, Saudi security officials confirmed the use of some physical and psychological pressure tactics. An examination of the indictment does not reveal what evidence, if any, was gleaned directly or indirectly from coerced statements. But the timing of the indictment, nearly two years after the arrest, suggests that U.S. authorities may be relying on evidence provided by the Saudis. This is not necessarily inappropriate. But the courts need to ensure that no evidence obtained by torture -- with or without the connivance of the U.S. government -- is used to convict people in U.S. courts.
Let us hope the Judicial Branch is more open than the Executive Branch has been. I, like the Post, want transparency.

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