More for the torture file

A federal judge acknowledges "circumstantial evidence" of U.S. complicity in torture conducted by foreign allies in the war against terrorism.

By Mark Follman
Published February 24, 2005 1:35AM (EST)

The Times reports today on an American student, Ahmed Omar Abu Ali, who was accused by the Justice Department on Tuesday of plotting with members of al-Qaida in 2003 to assassinate President Bush. Abu Ali was returned to the United States from Saudi Arabia, where he was imprisoned for the last 20 months.

Aside from how the case against Abu Ali plays out (the Times piece outlines the DOJ's charges in detail), his family and defense lawyers contend that Abu Ali was tortured while in Saudi custody. Testimonials of torture can be difficult to corroborate -- but according to the Times, during the Tuesday hearing in federal district court Abu Ali offered via his lawyers to show scars on his back from whippings at the hands of the Saudis. The judge declined, "putting off the torture issue until a later hearing," according to the Times.

But particularly striking is the opinion of another U.S. district court judge presiding over a lawsuit brought by Abu Ali's family last year to fight for his release from Saudi custody (emphasis ours): "Judge John D. Bates has not issued a ruling on Mr. Abu Ali's detention," reports the Times, "but he has expressed support for many of the family's central contentions and skepticism toward those of the government. In an opinion in December, Judge Bates wrote, 'There has been at least some circumstantial evidence that Abu Ali has been tortured during interrogations with the knowledge of the United States.' He added that agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, who were present for Saudi interrogations, 'have despaired at his continued detention, and more than one United States official has stated that Abu Ali is no longer a threat to the United States and there is no active interrogation.'"

Yet more troubling indications of the Bush administration's use of a secret policy known as "extraordinary rendition" in the war against terrorism.

Justice Department officials, meanwhile, have declined to discuss why they decided to bring terrorism charges against Abu Ali now, after past indications that some F.B.I. investigators did not consider him a threat. And because of the lawsuit by his family, the timing of the charges against Abu Ali have raised some eyebrows. "I suspect it's no coincidence that this man sat in detention for 20 months until a federal judge in the United States was threatening to require the American government to disclose its arrangements with the Saudi government for holding him," David D. Cole, a Georgetown University law professor who is representing Abu Ali's family in the case, told the Times. "The lawsuit gave the government a tremendous incentive to bring some charges."

A highly secret policy, of course, also hinges on categorical denial of its existence. According to the Times, Saudi and American officials denied on Tuesday that Abu Ali had been tortured, with one senior Justice Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, saying, "We have seen no evidence that Abu Ali was tortured or mistreated while in Saudi custody." Charges against him notwithstanding, maybe the shirt off his back would be a good place to start.

Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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