By Ahilan Arulanantham Director of Immigrants' Rights & National Security for the ACLU of Southern California.
In only two weeks a U.S. citizen will go on trial in the United Arab Emirates. The American man, who lived in Los Angeles for the better part of 20 years and built his family and business there, reports having been severely tortured while in the custody of the State Security forces of the United Arab Emirates. Yet, his own government has said nothing publicly to inquire about or protest his treatment. There is only one plausible explanation for the federal government's silence on the issue: our nation was complicit in the detention and torture that took place.
The case presents a simple yet profound question for the Obama Administration: whether it will actually end the human rights abuses of the Bush Administration, or instead simply stand silent while they continue.
More than eight months ago Naji Hamdan was arrested by State Security forces in the U.A.E. He was detained without charges or access to a lawyer until the ACLU filed a lawsuit in U. S. court seeking his release from incommunicado detention. One week later, he was transferred into U.A.E. criminal custody, officials disclosed his location and the torture stopped.
In criminal custody, Mr. Hamdan told both his family and the U.S. consular officer who visited him that he had been severely tortured: repeatedly beaten on his head, kicked on his sides, stripped and held in a freezing cold room, placed in an electric chair and made to believe that he would be electrocuted, and held down in a stress position while his captors beat the bottoms of his feet with a large stick. During this horrific process, he said whatever the agents wanted him to say, and those statements may now be used against him in a criminal trial in the U.A.E.
Mr. Hamdan's description of the torture and interrogation he endured strongly suggests that American agents have been involved. Although his captors blindfolded him, one of his interrogators spoke native English with an American accent and was not fluent in Arabic. In addition, the agents interrogated Mr. Hamdan on topics about which only federal agents could have knowledge, such as a meeting he had with FBI agents at the U.S. Embassy in Abu Dhabi. His interrogators also asked him in extreme detail about his life and activities when he lived in the United States.
Only a few weeks before his arrest, FBI agents from Los Angeles had flown to the U.A.E. and interrogated Mr. Hamdan at the embassy for several hours. This interrogation and the subsequent arrest were only the latest episodes in a two-year period during which the FBI intensively surveilled Mr. Hamdan. Yet throughout his subsequent ordeal in the U.A.E., the U.S. government claimed to know nothing about why Mr. Hamdan was detained or tortured. Indeed, documents filed with the Court show that the federal government has continued to investigate Hamdan's businesses in the U.S. even while it has denied any involvement in his detention in the U.A.E.
It appears that Mr. Hamdan is the latest victim of the U.S. government's practice of asking foreign governments to detain terrorism suspects whom the federal government cannot itself detain and interrogate under U.S. law ''' a practice known as '''proxy detention.' By asking other countries to detain on our behalf, the U.S. government apparently believes it can avoid the constraints of the U.S. Constitution, allowing federal agents to interrogate individuals held in secret, incommunicado detention, without charge or access to a lawyer, and subject to torture. The countries the U.S. partners with in this practice, including the U.A.E., typically have poor human rights records and weak protections against prolonged arbitrary detention. In fact, a document submitted in Mr. Hamdan's case make clear that the United States has used the U.A.E. previously as its proxy to detain people subject to the rendition program. The proxy detention program has also been documented by groups such as the NYU Center for Human Rights and Global Justice.
An ironic twist in this case is that Mr. Hamdan was more than willing to talk to FBI agents. He voluntarily submitted to their interrogation several times over the last few years. Obviously if Mr. Hamdan has done something wrong, he should be charged with a crime. But the basis for those charges cannot be statements obtained under torture. If there is no evidence against him, he should be released.
The ACLU's lawsuit demands the federal government seek his release and reveal the nature and extent of its involvement. President Barack Obama won election amidst promises to restore our nation's commitment to the rule of law. Surely he believes that our country owes its own citizens the right to learn what role our government has played in detaining and torturing them.