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In the past almost four years, I have come to fear almost everything the Bush administration does. In one way or the other, it has harmed, perhaps irreparably, virtually every aspect of American life. From raising the acceptable arsenic levels in water (a little arsenic is good for us all) to logging and snowmobiling in America’s formerly treasured parks, to ripping apart the bill of rights and trampling it underfoot, to using the threat of “terrorist” attacks for political gain, to going to war on a lie and not just spending our money outrageously but being responsible for-and proud of-the deaths of hundreds of American soldiers, the maiming of thousands more (a deep and dirty secret) and the slaying of thousands (but who’s counting?) Iraqi civilians. All of this and much, much more literally keeps me awake at night, sick with fear and worry.
But nothing disturbs me more than the case of Ahmed Abu Ali.
Abu Ali is an American citizen, born in Texas in 1981. He is a resident of Falls Church, Virginia, where he lives with his parents. He was valedictorian of his 1999 graduating class in a northern Virginia high school. He attends a Saudi university where he is studying for a degree.
Last June, Ahmed was taking an exam at the International University of Medina. In stormed Saudi police who took him away to a Saudi prison where he has been since that day. It has taken a year for the story to make any sense, and during this time his family and lawyer have kept me informed about the case. However, they asked me not to write about it, for fear that it may jeopardize his potential for release.
Now that it appears their son may never come home, at least not if the Bush administration can help it, they have filed a law suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, asking that their son be given the same rights as the Supreme Court recently gave Guantanamo prisoners and American citizen Yaser Hamdi-the right to, at a minimum, challenge his detention. They have also given me permission, through their attorney, to write about their son’s case.
Here is the abbreviated version of the undisputed facts, according to court records and discussions with the family and attorney: Ahmed was acquainted with some of the men charged in the notorious case of the Alexandria 11, men who pled guilty or were convicted (all but one of them, and that is important, as you will see) of conspiring to fight for the Muslim cause in the constant battle between India and Pakistan over the territory of Kashmir. Kashmir is divided between Muslim and Christian populations and the Indian Christians and the Pakistani Muslim governments share control over the territory. The interest in fighting for Kashmir is one that is promoted by many Muslims. The men were friends, and in the course of their friendship play paintball and shoot at targets with guns, all perfectly legal in Northern Virginia. In fact, gun use is so legal in Virginia that the legislature recently passed a law affirmatively making it acceptable (indeed promoting) the carrying of weapons into bars and restaurants.
Initially charged under the seldom-used Neutrality Act, which forbids an American from taking sides with an “enemy” of the United States, those who pled to conspiring to aid Muslims were given sentences of four to ten years in exchange for testifying against the others; the men who did not pled guilty were indicted with aiding and abetting terrorism, upping the ante to life prison terms. Of the four men who did not plead guilty to the new charges, three were convicted by Judge Leonie Brinkema and sentenced to 85 to 115 years in prison. These were men who were not a threat to the U.S., who were not anti-American, who never took up arms against any one, but who, it is true, were sympathetic to the Muslim cause. They would have fought for the Muslim cause in Kashmir, if the occasion presented itself (India and Pakistan declared a cease fire early in 2004).
One of the men who pled not guilty had been in Saudi Arabia at the same time that Abu Ali was “detained.” He was extradited to the United States, and Judge Brinkema found him not guilty. Though he is free at the moment, he expects to be harassed by prosecutors. Surely, he will be arrested and charged with something-anything to avenge his acquittal by Judge Brinkema.
Abu Ali has been visited in Saudi Arabia by the FBI and perhaps by Alexandria prosecutors. From what little we know (he has been denied an attorney, and the State Department and the Saudi government have conspired to insure that he receives no mail or visits), he was urged to confess to being part of the Alexandria 11, he refused, likely being tortured and mentally and physically abused. He was urged to renounce his U.S. citizenship, in exchange for the promise of being taken to Sweden. (He was smart not to do that; last week it was reported in the Washington Post that the U.S. government aided Swedish officials in “rendering” Saudi citizens back to Saudi Arabia where they were “tried” for “terrorism” crimes and are serving lengthy prison terms. Both maintain their innocence. )
If prosecutors had any case at all against Abu Ali, they would surely have had him extradited at the same time as Sabri Benkhala, who was acquitted by Judge Brinkema. Abu Ali has been threatened with being named an enemy combatant, but that would also mean that he would be brought to the U.S., held like Americans Padilla and Hamdi and, now, entitled to an attorney and the right to file a habeas corpus petition challenging his relief.
But that is not going to happen. The day Abu Ali’s parents filed a petition for habeas corpus and other relief, the U.S. State Department informed them that the Saudis were going to charge Abu Ali with unspecified crimes of “terror.” Days before the case was filed, the Saudis told the family that they were ready to release Abu Ali, but had to have approval from the U.S. to do so. The Saudis said they had no interest in him. The State Department, at that time, it was up to the Saudis. Clearly, no one is telling the truth. The State Department now says it cannot comment on anything, because Abu Ali never signed “privacy” forms, forms that the Saudis refused to give him (no doubt told to refuse to deliver them by the same State Department that claims they can’t obtain them from their detainee).
Here is why I am scared to death of this administration: Abu Ali will surely never come home. There is no way the U.S. government is going to let a man live to tell the tale of his capture by Saudis at the request of the U.S., his incarceration without a charge, without a lawyer, without access to his family, and, no doubt, his being subject to torture during long periods of interrogation. Maybe Kromberg wanted him at some time, found there was nothing to get him on, then told the Saudis to torture him into confession of anything that would make him extraditable. For the present time, it still takes an actual criminal charge to indict someone.
But it takes nothing but the whims of the government, to “render” an American citizen to another country and demand that that country imprison the American until it says to release him or her. But then the U.S. cannot tolerate the word getting out about the whole story, so it will have to silence Abu Ali by keeping him locked up forever (or worse) in a Saudi jail.
Let’s be clear about this-the Saudis insist that they are holding him only because the U.S. demands it.
Remember Nicholas Berg, who was beheaded shortly after his release by the U.S. government in Iraq? Remember how the U.S. insisted that it never had him in custody but that that “Iraqi police” held him? Forget for a time that the Iraqi police did nothing without the permission of and payment by the U.S. government-the police said that they had seized Berg at the demand of the U.S. and they released Berg to its custody. Finally, after Berg died, the State Department admitted the U.S. had detained him. When Berg refused the request of the U.S. government that it take him out of Iraq, when Berg insisted that he was going to leave Iraq on his own, he was murdered.
You connect the dots. Or not. But don’t turn away from the frightening truth of what your government is up to-successfully, without accountability, violating every right and privilege Americans have under U.S. and international law.
Even if the federal court orders that Abu Ali be brought to the U.S. to have a hearing, don’t expect it to happen. Accidents happen in prison, don’t they? Especially in foreign prisons. The Pentagon is even now making it near impossible for attorneys for the Guantanamo prisoners to meet their clients and file the petitions the Supreme Court gave them the right to file.
Face it. We are living in a time of anarchy. Our government is imprisoning its citizens without cause and without process. Welcome to George Bush’s America.
ELAINE CASSEL practices law in Virginia and the District of Columbia, teaches law and psychology, and follows the Bush regime’s dismantling of the Constitution at Civil Liberties Watch. Her book, The War on Civil Liberties: How Bush and Ashcroft Have Dismantled the Bill of Rights, will be published by Lawrence Hill this summer. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org