STOCKHOLM – A Muslim American seeking asylum in Sweden claimed Wednesday he was detained at the U.S. government's request while in the United Arab Emirates last summer, tortured in custody and interrogated about the activities of a Portland, Oregon, mosque.
Yonas Fikre told a news conference Wednesday that he was held for 106 days and was beaten, threatened with death and kept in solitary confinement in a frigid cell.
The 33-year-old, a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Eritrea, says he had attended the same mosque in Portland as a man who has been charged in a plot to detonate a bomb in the northwestern U.S. city. He moved to Sudan in 2009 and later to the United Arab Emirates. He went to Sweden, where he has relatives, after being released from detention on Sept. 15.
Fikre, who converted to Islam in 2003, is the third Muslim man from Portland to publicly say he was detained while traveling abroad and questioned about Portland's Masjid-as-Sabr mosque. Mohamed Osman Mohamud, a Somali American who is awaiting trial on a charge of plotting to set off a bomb in downtown Portland in November 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.
Fikre says he met Mohamud a handful of times, but wouldn't call him a friend or even an acquaintance.
Fikre says he was arrested on June 1 in the United Arab Emirates and taken to a prison in Abu Dhabi, where he was questioned about the activities of the Portland mosque and its imam, Mohamed Sheikh Abdirahman Kariye.
When he first suggested that his UAE interrogators were working for the FBI, they became very upset, he said.
"They got very angry and they said: We don't work with the Americans, we are an independent country," he said. However, in the final days of his confinement, Fikre said that one interrogator acknowledged that the FBI had been involved in his questioning.
"He confirmed to me that the FBI was there. Also when I was getting beaten, they did admit that the FBI knew exactly what was happening and they were working with the FBI," Fikre said.
Beth Anne Steele, a spokeswoman for the FBI office in Portland, said she could not discuss specifics of the case.
"I can tell you that the FBI trains its agents very specifically and very thoroughly about what is acceptable under U.S. law," she said. "To do anything counter to that training is counterproductive — we risk legal liability and potentially losing a criminal case in court."
The Council on American-Islamic Relations has called upon the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate whether Fikre was tortured at the behest of the FBI.
"Barack Obama said that America doesn't torture," said Gadeir Abbas, the group's attorney. "We didn't see the footnote that America relies on others to do its torture."
An aide to Oregon congressman Earl Blumenauer told the AP that last June, Blumenauer's office had been contacted by Fikre's wife and lawyer after he vanished. The aide, Willie Smith, said State Department officials confirmed to the congressman's office that Fikre was detained June 20 in the United Arab Emirates.
A few days later a U.S. official went to the prison where Fikre was being held, Smith said. According to Smith, U.S. government officials told Fikre's wife that he "was fine and that he wasn't being mistreated."
Fikre said he moved to Sudan in late 2009 to pursue business opportunities. A few months later, he was asked to contact the U.S. Embassy to discuss safety and security concerns for Americans in the unstable country. He was met by two men who identified themselves as FBI agents and asked questions about the Portland mosque. Fikre says the agents told him he had been placed on the federal no-fly list, and could only return to the U.S. if he agreed to become an informant, an offer he refused.
In the ensuing weeks, the FBI met a relative of Fikre's in Portland and urged that person to encourage Fikre to cooperate with authorities, he said. Fikre said he began to notice he was being followed on the streets of Sudan, prompting him to leave the country on June 15, 2010. Fikre then visited relatives in Europe for three months and flew to the United Arab Emirates after his European Union visa expired.
In a phone interview with The AP, Smith read what he said was an email from the American Citizens Services bureau about its contact with Fikre and with his family.
"After contacting multiple legal authorities in the UAE and the ministry of foreign affairs, we finally got confirmation that he was being held by the state security department. We were able to conduct a consular visit today and have contacted his wife to update her," the bureau wrote to Blumenauer's office.
Fikre said the person who visited him was a low-ranking embassy official. Fikre said he was warned to say he was being treated well or "more torture would take place." He said the beatings and interrogation continued until his September release.
Associated Press writer Steven DuBois reported from Portland, Oregon.