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The Light is Going Out
by William Fisher
January 14, 2005

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At his confirmation hearing to be America’s next attorney general, President Bush’s White House Counsel, Alberto Gonzales ducked most of the potentially contentious questions asked by his US Senate questioners. But he pledged that he would work around the clock to protect civil liberties and human rights.

Well, here’s a place for him to begin:

Since June 2003, Ahmed Abu Ali, a 23-year-old US citizen, has been held in al-Ha’ir prison in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. He was reportedly arrested by Saudi Arabian authorities on June 11, 2003 in the city of Medina, while taking an exam at the Islamic University there. He has no access to legal counsel or to family members. It is not clear whether he has been charged with a crime, nor is it clears when, or if, he will be put on trial. The US Government says it had nothing to do with his detention, although three FBI agents reportedly questioned him soon after his arrest. Saudi officials have declined to give an explanation for his detention, but say they are holding him at the request of the US State Department and would be glad to release him if there was a request from the US.

The US consul failed to visit Ahmed Abu Ali until almost a month after his detention, and then began monthly visits. Two months after his arrest, in September 2003, he was interrogated by three FBI agents. They reportedly threatened to declare him an “enemy combatant” and send him to Guantanamo Bay. Or he could stand trial in Saudi Arabia, where he would have no legal defense. He was then placed in solitary confinement for three months.  Between November 2003 and February 2004, the US consul halted his monthly visits.

With the help of a prominent civil rights attorney, Morton Sklar, Executive Director of Human Rights USA, in August of this year Abu Ali's parents sued the US government. They asked a Federal court to order a hearing on his detention. For authority, they relied on the Supreme Court rulings in the cases of the Guantanamo Bay prisoners, and an American citizen, Yaser Hamdi. These decisions affirmed that even in wartime, the President does not have a “blank check” to detain people without due process.

Responding to the parents’ petition in federal court, Justice Department attorneys said US courts lacked jurisdiction over cases involving US citizens in foreign custody. District Judge John D. Bates rejected the notion that “when the United States acts against citizens abroad it can do so free of the Bill of Rights.” He ordered the Justice Department to produce evidence establishing what role, if any, U.S. officials played in Abu Ali's arrest and detention.

The government’s “position is as striking as it is sweeping,” the judge said. He warned that its behavior would allow the government to arrest people and deliver them to another country in order to avoid constitutional scrutiny, or even “to deliver American citizens to foreign governments to obtain information through the use of torture.”

The State Department Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2003 says Saudi Arabian security forces “tortured detainees” and that “torture and abuse were used to obtain confessions from prisoners.”  The report also cites “credible reports that security forces continued to torture and abuse detainees and prisoners, arbitrarily arrest and detain persons, and hold them in incommunicado detention.” 

Amnesty International has expressed “concern” over Abu Ali’s plight. “As information or confessions are often extracted under this kind of duress, the failure of United States consular authorities to visit Ahmed Abu Ali promptly after his initial detention, or to regularly visit him since then, has put him at increased risk of these abuses.”

The judge directed the US officials named in the suit to respond within 30 days. Those officials include Attorney General John D. Ashcroft, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell. So far the silence has been deafening.

At the time they filed the suit, in August of this year, the Saudi government told the family they had no interest in their son. The United States insisted that it was not holding him. But the day the family filed suit, the State Department called the parents and told them that the Saudis were charging him with unspecified terrorism-related crimes. At this point, it is unclear whether any charges have been brought by the Saudis.

But The Washington Post reported that the Saudi embassy said in an e-mail that a senior Saudi official had issued the following statement: Abu Ali “is being detained with the full knowledge and support of the US government. There is an ongoing investigation regarding this individual. At this time, we have received no request for extradition.”

Yet, more recently, The Post reported, Abu Ali was told by Saudi authorities that his trial was approaching. US officials have not facilitated legal representation, nor have they discovered what, if anything, he has been charged with.

“Every development we have seen suggests this is a US case and US prosecution,” said attorney Sklar.

US officials have been interested in Ahmed Abu Ali because of an alleged connection to a now-concluded Virginia terrorism case. During the July 2003 bail hearing for one of the Virginia defendants, Sabri Benkhala, it was mentioned that Abu Ali was an associate of his who had allegedly confessed to belonging to al-Qaeda during interrogations that were conducted by Saudi Arabia authorities and observed by the FBI. Ahmed Abu Ali denied to his family that he had ever made such a confession. Curiously, the allegation was not repeated during Benkhala’s March 2004 trial. He was acquitted of all charges.

Most Americans are, lamentably, uninformed about this case -- or many other cases of post 9/11 infringements on liberties guaranteed by the US Constitution. Or they have been persuaded by the Bush Administration that losing some of these liberties is critical to “winning the war on terror.”

But many citizens are outraged. Typical is Lawrence Jones of Conifer, Colorado, who wrote to The Denver Post, “Do you know what we call detainees when they are held by other countries without sufficient evidence and without due process of law? ‘Political prisoners.’ And we make a great show of our self-righteous disdain when other countries do exactly what we are doing. What happened to the America I learned about in school, the America that set people free because of a lack of evidence? What are we holding these people on -- hunches?”

The author of the now infamous memo to President Bush characterizing the Geneva Conventions as “obsolete” and “quaint” will soon be confirmed as the nation’s top law enforcement officer. America’s new Attorney General would do well to listen to consult Churchill’s October 16, 1938 speech, “The Light is Going Out” for his job description.

Directed at the U.S. from London, he said: “I avail myself with relief of the opportunity speaking to the people of the United States. I do not know how long such liberties will be allowed, the stations of uncensored expression are closing down; the lights are going out; but there is still time for those to whom freedom and Parliamentary government mean something, to consult together... They [dictators] are afraid of words and thoughts: words spoken abroad, thoughts stirring at home--all the more powerful because forbidden--terrify them.”

William Fisher has managed economic development programs in the Middle East and North Africa for the US State Department and the US Agency for International Development, and served in the international affairs area in the Kennedy administration. He can be reached through his blog at:

Other Articles by William Fisher

* The Moral High Ground?
* Where Will It End?
* The Government We Deserve?