PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — His interrogators usually came in the morning. Peeking under a blindfold in a cold concrete cell, Yonas Fikre says he caught only glimpses of their shoes.
They beat the soles of his feet with hoses and sticks, asking him about his Portland, Ore., mosque and its imam. Each day, the men questioning him in a United Arab Emirates prison told the 33-year-old Fikre he would be released “tomorrow,” according to an account he gave on Wednesday at a press conference in Sweden, where he has been since September.
“It was very hard, because you don’t know why you are in there and the only person you speak to is either yourself, or the wall, or when you go to the restroom or when you go to the torture place,” said Fikre, who was held for 106 days. “I have never been that isolated from human beings in my entire life.”
An advocacy group alleges that over the past two years the FBI has been using aggressive tactics against Muslim-Americans travelling abroad to try to pressure them to become informants when they got home. Gadeir Abbas, staff attorney for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, says there have been several instances of FBI agents calling travelers into embassies or consulates for questioning.
The FBI is not commenting other than to say its agents follow the law.
Fikre, who converted to Islam in 2003, is the third Muslim man from Portland to publicly say he was detained while traveling abroad and questioned about Portland’s Masjid as-Sabr mosque.
The mosque, the largest in Oregon, has been in the news on several occasions. Mohamed Osman Mohamud, a Somali American charged with plotting to set off a bomb in downtown Portland in 2010, occasionally worshipped there. A decade ago, seven Muslims with ties to the mosque were arrested following a failed effort to enter Afghanistan and fight U.S. forces.
Fikre says he met Mohamud a handful of times, but wouldn’t call him a friend or even an acquaintance.
U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner confirmed Wednesday that Fikre was held in Abu Dhabi “on unspecified charges.” Toner said when State Department officials met with him in July 2011, he showed no signs of mistreatment.
Fikre, a naturalized U.S. citizen, was born in Eritrea, a country east of Sudan. He moved to Sudan when he was a boy, then moved with his family to San Diego in 1991, then later to Portland.
He married in 2008, and says he traveled to Sudan in December of the following year to pursue business opportunities.
Fikre says that in April 2009 he was asked to go to the U.S. Embassy to discuss concerns about “safety and security” for U.S. citizens.
Instead, he claims, two FBI agents told him he was on the U.S. government no-fly list, and they could help get him off it if he gave them information about the Portland mosque and helped them with a “case” they were working on. Fikre says he declined.
Fikre says he traveled to Scandinavia to visit relatives, and then to the United Arab Emirates to pursue business possibilities with a friend who had moved there from Portland.
According to Fikre, non-uniformed police pulled him out of his Abu Dhabi neighborhood on June 1, 2011, and took him to a prison.
Fikre says he was held there for more than three months, with his captors asking him questions like those he was asked at the U.S. Embassy in Sudan — details about the Portland mosque.
He says one of the worst moments was when a U.S. Embassy representative visited him in the prison on July 28. He says he was warned by his interrogators not to tell the representative he was being beaten, or “hell would break loose.”
He said he tried to wink and signal to her that he was under duress, but she didn’t notice.
“She was the only person that I felt could get me out of that position at the moment because she is my representative to the outside world, she’s my representative to my embassy and she just left me there and she walked away,” Fikre said.
Toner confirmed State Department officials were granted access to meet with him on July 28.
“According to our records, during the July 28 visit, Mr. Fikre showed no signs of mistreatment and was in good spirits,” Toner said. “He reported that he had been treated professionally and was being well-fed, and did not have any medical conditions or concerns.”
Fikre says the beatings and interrogations continued, and that during the last days of his confinement an interrogator acknowledged the FBI had requested that he be detained.
State Department officials requested to visit Fikre again in September, but learned days later that he had been deported to Sweden, Toner said.
Beth Anne Steele, a spokeswoman for the FBI office in Portland, said she could not discuss specifics of the case.
“I can tell you that the FBI trains its agents very specifically and very thoroughly about what is acceptable under U.S. law,” she said. “To do anything counter to that training is counterproductive — we risk legal liability and potentially losing a criminal case in court.”
When Fikre was released on Sept. 14, he had lost nearly 30 pounds. He has applied for asylum in Sweden.
He, his attorney and the Council on American-Islamic Relations are demanding the U.S. Justice Department investigate his treatment.
Rising reported from Stockholm, Sweden. Associated Press writer Matthew Lee in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.
Reach reporter Nigel Duara at http://www.twitter.com/nigelduara .
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