WASHINGTON – Ahmed Abu Ali (search) has spent more than a year in a Saudi Arabian jail for suspected links to terrorism, but he soon might have a chance to challenge his detention in a U.S. courtroom.
A federal judge has ordered U.S. officials to produce records showing whether Abu Ali — a U.S. citizen who grew up in Falls Church, Virginia — was arrested and detained at the behest of the American government.
His family, still living in northern Virginia, claims U.S. officials want to keep Abu Ali in Saudi Arabia (search) so he can be subject to torture and otherwise denied his constitutional rights. U.S. District Judge John Bates did not rule on the legitimacy of those claims Thursday, but said there was some circumstantial evidence Abu Ali has been tortured during interrogations, with the knowledge of the United States.
The case is believed to be the first to challenge the U.S. government's position that Americans have no access to U.S. courts when they are arrested by a foreign government. Legal experts said it could set an important precedent in the government's worldwide pursuit of terrorists.
Justice Department (search) officials have not said whether they will comply with the ruling or file an appeal. In the past, the government has said Saudi officials acted on their own and plan to file charges against Abu Ali.
Abu Ali's family and his attorney, Morton Sklar, said he thinks the government would rather find a way to release him from custody rather than divulge information about his arrest in Saudi Arabia.
"It could be very potentially embarrassing to the government if facts come out showing the United States involvement in this process, especially if it includes evidence they encouraged illegal detention and torture of an American citizen," Sklar said.
Abu Ali, 23, was enrolled in a Saudi university when he was imprisoned without charges on June 11, 2003. Bates said Abu Ali's family provided "considerable" evidence that the U.S. government orchestrated his capture.
In his ruling, Bates cited some of the family's claims:
—FBI agents attended Abu Ali's interrogation by Saudi officials and raided his parents' house in northern Virginia at roughly the same time.
—Three other U.S. citizens living in Saudi Arabia were arrested almost simultaneously with Abu Ali and extradited to the United States to stand trial. One of them testified he was told by U.S. and Saudi officials that he was arrested at the behest of the United States.
—Saudi officials have told U.S. officials they would release Abu Ali if the United States requested it.
The lawsuit filed by the World Organization for Human Rights USA on Abu Ali's behalf said he should have the same chance to contest his detention that the Supreme Court gave last June to foreign-born terrorism suspects held at the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
In his decision, Bates rejected the U.S. government's position that an American court could never have jurisdiction over the plight of a U.S. citizen held captive in a foreign country. Relying on the Guantanamo ruling, Bates said such a declaration was too sweeping and would allow the government "to deliver a United States citizen to a foreign country to avoid constitutional scrutiny, or ... work through the intermediary of a foreign country to detain a United States citizen abroad."
"The court concludes that a citizen cannot be so easily separated from his constitutional rights," the judge said.
Federal prosecutors in Virginia tried this year to link Abu Ali, who holds dual U.S.-Jordanian citizenship, to other men who later were convicted of training for holy war against the United States by playing paintball games in the Virginia woods. But Abu Ali was not charged in that case.
Abu Ali's family cited two instances in which they say the assistant U.S. attorney in the Virginia case made comments indicating that Abu Ali has had his fingernails removed in the Saudi jail.