PORTLAND, Ore. – An American Muslim who says he was beaten with batons by prison interrogators while held in solitary confinement overseas for more than three months has sued the FBI and State Department, claiming the torture was done at their behest.
The lawsuit filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Oregon seeks $30 million and several injunctions against the U.S. government concerning its treatment of citizens overseas.
Yonas Fikre said he was held for 106 days in the United Arab Emirates after refusing to cooperate with Portland, Ore.,-based FBI agents in an interview in Sudan. The State Department has confirmed previously that Fikre was held in Abu Dhabi "on unspecified charges," but said he was visited by State Department officials and showed no signs of mistreatment.
Fikre said the FBI agents named in the suit wanted him to become an informant at Portland's largest mosque, Masjid As-Saber, and were angered when he refused. He said interrogators in Abu Dhabi later used information Fikre had given to the FBI agents in his interrogation.
Fikre said he told his interrogators that many of their questions were the same ones he had been asked during his FBI interview.
"(Fikre) thus inquired whether his confinement and mistreatment was at the request of the FBI," according to the lawsuit. "On each such occasion, the interrogators responded by beating plaintiff severely."
Two other Oregon Muslims who worship at the mosque have also alleged they were held overseas and were asked to become informants by Portland-based FBI agents. Both men have returned to Oregon.
The mosque has come under scrutiny before. Mohamed Osman Mohamud, a Somali American convicted of 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.
Named in Fikre's suit are Attorney General Eric Holder, Secretary of State John Kerry, FBI Director Robert Mueller, FBI Terrorism Screening Center director Timothy Healy and the two Portland-based agents, David Noordeloos and Jason Dundas.
Fikre, a Sudanese man of Eritrean descent, came to Portland in 2006 and worked for a cellphone company for a period. In 2009, he decided to open an electronics retail business in Sudan. His wife remained in Portland.
In April 2010, a man claiming to be a U.S. embassy official in Sudan asked Fikre to come to "a luncheon the following day in order to discuss how Americans might stay safe during a period of political turmoil in Sudan," according to the suit.
Instead, Fikre said he went through embassy security and was met by the FBI agents, Dundas and Noordeloos, in a small room. Fikre said he was denied representation by an attorney. He believed he was not permitted to leave, though he didn't actually try to stand and leave.
The suit includes a text copy of a letter that Fikre claims was sent to him by Noordeloos.
"While we hope to get your side of issues we keep hearing about, the choice is yours to make. The time to help yourself is now." The letter, as represented by Fikre, is signed "Dave Noordeloos."
Fikre believed he was being followed by Sudanese secret police, and acquaintances told him they had been questioned about his activities. He left Sudan in June 2010 and arrived in the United Arab Emirates in September 2010, where he obtained a residency permit.
Less than a year later, in June 2011, men "invaded" his house in Abu Dhabi, blindfolded him and took him to a windowless cell.
He was questioned for hours every day in English, only able to see the shoes and pants of his captors. The questions focused on who had a "jihad mentality" at the mosque, what its imam discussed in public and private and how the mosque conducted fundraising.
Attorney Tom Nelson, who filed the suit Thursday, said he learned of Fikre's detention in late June 2011 and contacted the offices of U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, who passed on his concerns to the State Department.
In late July 2011, two months into his detention, Fikre said he was visited by a member of the State Department. Before the meeting, Fikre said he was instructed not to talk about his treatment to the visiting consular official, "lest he be beaten still more severely."
Despite efforts to alert the visiting State Department official — Fikre said he used facial expressions, but they were either misunderstood or ignored — Fikre said he remained imprisoned for another month.
His release came on Sept. 4, 2011. He had been placed on the U.S. no-fly list, and could not return to Oregon, so went instead to Sweden.
He gave a news conference on April 18, 2012, about his detention. On May 1, 2012, he was indicted in federal court in California for "conspiracy to structure" 2010 monetary transfers from his family to him in the United Arab Emirates — money transfers the government says were set up to avoid U.S. reporting requirements.
Fikre believes the indictment was a response to his decision to go public.
Contact reporter Nigel Duara at https://twitter.com/nigelduara