Was our government involved in the overseas abduction and torture of an American citizen? Do we have the right to know the answer to that question? That is the issue the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals must decide in an appeal filed last week by Asian Americans Advancing Justice - Los Angeles and the ACLU of Southern California.
Those groups have been attempting to get this information for the last three years through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit. The case, filed on behalf of Naji Hamdan, a former resident of Hawthorne, CA, remains a troubling reminder of our government’s failure to fully acknowledge its use of the abusive practice of “proxy detention.” (The term refers to the practice by the U.S. government of enlisting a friendly foreign government to detain U.S. citizens abroad, without providing them the legal protections they would be afforded in the U.S.)
Hamdan is an American citizen of Lebanese descent who has never been arrested or convicted for any offense in the United States. The FBI and other government agencies intensively surveilled him, like many other Muslims across the country, for several years while he lived in southern California. He eventually moved, with his wife and children, to the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.). In the summer of 2008, FBI agents from southern California flew to the U.A.E. and interrogated him at the U.S. embassy there for several hours. Approximately four weeks later, the U.A.E.’s state security forces arrived at his house and abducted him, placing him in an undisclosed location – he effectively disappeared.
Because the U.A.E. was (and remains) a close ally of the United States in national security matters, and because FBI agents from southern California had interrogated Hamdan just weeks before his abduction, his family filed a habeas petition against the U.S. government alleging that it was responsible for his detention. Days after the petition’s filing, the U.A.E. released him from the black site without any explanation, transferring him to a prison.
Once his family (and attorneys) were able to communicate with him, they learned still more disturbing aspects of the story, including that he had been subjected to horrific torture while at the black site, and that an unknown, apparently-American man had been present during at least one of his interrogation sessions.
Hamdan was eventually released from prison in the U.A.E. (after being convicted of unspecified offenses in a sham trial, sentenced to “time served,” and deported), and the U.S. government obtained a dismissal of the habeas case filed on his behalf.
Though the U.S. government has generally acknowledged its reliance on proxy detention to detain U.S. citizens abroad, it has not acknowledged its part in the proxy detention of Naji Hamdan or explained exactly what it said to the U.A.E. at the time of his abduction. This unlawful practice has been highly criticized by human rights and civil liberties advocates not only because of the ill treatment suffered by detainees, but also because the practice obstructs oversight over the treatment of detainees by the judiciary and Congress.
Through this appeal, Advancing Justice – LA and the ACLU of Southern California seek to obtain the truth about the U.S. government’s involvement in Hamdan’s horrific ordeal.
Zulaikha Aziz is staff attorney at Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Los Angeles.