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American Citizen Jailed in Saudi Arabia for 20 Months Convicted in U.S. Court of Joining al-Qaeda and Plotting to Assassinate Bush

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A 24-year old Arab-American was convicted Tuesday of joining al-Qaeda and plotting to assassinate President Bush. Houston native Ahmed Omar Abu Ali was tried after spending nearly two years in a Saudi Arabian prison, where he says was tortured into making a confession. We speak with his attorney. [includes rush transcript]

A 24-year old Arab-American was convicted Tuesday of joining al-Qaeda and plotting to assassinate President Bush. Houston native Ahmed Omar Abu Ali was tried after spending nearly two years in a Saudi Arabian prison, where he says was tortured into making a confession. Two doctors who examined him corroborated his claim. Abu Ali moved to Saudi Arabia to study Islam in the year 2000. He was arrested three years later while taking final exams at the Islamic University of Medina. He’ll be sentenced on February 17, and faces life in prison.

  • Ashraf Nubani, Attorney and Managing Partner of The Nubani Law Firm. Lawyer for Ahmed Omar Abu Ali, the Virginia resident convicted of terrorism charges last week. He joins us on the line from Virginia.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We are joined now on the line by Ahmed Omar Abu Ali’s attorney, Ashraf Nubani. He is a Virginia-based attorney and Managing Partner of the Nubani Law Firm. Welcome to Democracy Now!

ASHRAF NUBANI: Thank you. Good morning.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Your response to the conviction of your client?

ASHRAF NUBANI: Well, obviously, the jury has spoken, but it’s not over. We plan to appeal. The appeal will be done after the sentencing in February. We believe that it’s unfortunate that the judicial system and the justice system hasn’t worked when it comes to these types of cases, but certainly in the case of Ahmed, who was tortured and held by a foreign country and then rendered back to the United States, only to face these criminal charges.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the defense of your client, and also your ultimate response to the conviction. The Washington Post today has an editorial, “Belated Justice for a Terrorist”?

ASHRAF NUBANI: Actually, I didn’t see the — I didn’t see that, but it’s just unfortunate that we have — we have a situation again, as I said, that you have someone who was held in solitary confinement for 20 months in Saudi Arabia. We were unable to bring evidence of the Saudi system — the Saudi judicial system there and the methods of interrogation, other than through a cross-examination of what’s called the Saudi Mukhbarat — they’re the secret service in Saudi Arabia — through depositions that were held there, and were under a protective order for many months before the actual trial.

Belated justice in the sense that we haven’t — we didn’t have the opportunity to show that he had been tortured beyond allowing Ahmed to testify. There was no way to go to Saudi Arabia to uncover the methods of abuse that is applied by the Saudi government in these tapes of cases on its own citizens and citizens abroad, and to come back after two years and charge someone with conspiracy, which even the indictment and the government agrees that the conspiracy, for example, to assassinate the President, never went beyond the talking stage. The person who Ahmed was alleged to have discussed the assassination of the President has been dead for over a year, and therefore, it — actually more than a year, but the person is no longer living, and therefore, it was just unbearable to see 12 jurors sentence — or 12 jurors to decide that someone is guilty of these crimes.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to read you, Ashraf Nubani, from the Washington Post piece that you haven’t gotten a chance to see yet. It says that “Abu Ali’s family alleged on behalf of the U.S. government he was held for the better part of two years without charge or access to counsel. When his parents brought suit in this country, the government fought the lawsuit, not only with secret evidence, but with a secret legal theory. It then brought him home and charged him with plotting to kill President Bush and conduct major terrorist operations. Mr. Abu Ali in turn claimed he had been tortured and had confessed falsely under duress, an allegation that given Saudi Arabia’s human rights record was plausible. Sorting out the question of his guilt and the linked question of his treatment seemed a tall order indeed.

“Last week, a jury in federal court in Alexandria convicted Mr. Abu Ali on all charges against him. The trial, which was conducted remarkably smoothly, answered a lot of troubling questions the case posed. It now appears, for example, Mr. Abu Ali was not arrested at the behest of American authorities, but on the initiative of Saudi authorities investigating terrorism in their own country. After a lengthy set of hearings on Abu Ali’s allegations of torture, the U.S. District Judge Gerald Bruce Lee produced a detailed opinion rejecting them and holding that Mr. Abu Ali’s incriminating statements about his plans and activities were voluntary and therefore admissible as evidence against him. The jury evidently agreed. The trial had certain peculiarities. Key witnesses testified from Saudi Arabia by videoconference, but in the main, the result is an outcome that has happened too infrequently in the war on terrorism: A conviction in a major case following the regular rules.” Your response?

ASHRAF NUBANI: Well, I think that this is the tragedy of this case. Certainly, there hasn’t been a case since September 11 that the case — these terrorism cases have been — have turned out what they were touted to be by the government or the administration, and Ahmed Abu Ali’s case is no different. I think that there was a lot of failures in the justice system and in this case. One is that the judge heard Ahmed testify. Everyone in the courtroom and the public heard that testimony. There wasn’t an issue about his credibility as to what happened. I believe that the judge did not want to be in a position where he would let the, quote, unquote, “terrorist” go by suppressing the evidence against him.

You have to understand that the evidence that was presented by the prosecution was basically his statements, and the government’s position obviously was that he wasn’t tortured, but the case shouldn’t have gone to the jury in the first place. As far as — you know, as I said the jury has spoken, but again, it’s impossible — almost impossible, and there are flukes, but it’s almost impossible to receive a fair trial in the United States after September 11, but certainly in the Eastern District of Virginia, where the jury pool is devoid of minorities and people who share a diverse background.

AMY GOODMAN: Will you be appealing on those grounds?

ASHRAF NUBANI: Well, the judge’s finding is a credibility issue, which there is no appeal. He would have to have been wrong on the law. The joint venture issue that was alluded to in the Post article is an issue that we weren’t able to flush out. And the problem with that was that the government had kept a lot of the material away from the defense team throughout the trial. I had applied for a security clearance that was denied by the government, and no specific reason was given. And it was too late for the rest of the team to apply for their own security clearances, and we had to bring in counsel that was cleared.

Paperwork or the documents that were turned over that were unclassified showed that Ahmed was being held at some point at the behest of the United States. In fact, it was the C.I.A. asked that he be held, and at one point, there was a communication that stated that he shouldn’t — that he should no longer be held at the behest of the United States. We don’t have the smoking gun. We believe that if that existed, it was certainly destroyed and would not be available to us, but it doesn’t mean that there wasn’t a joint venture here. It’s just that the judge didn’t buy that argument, and therefore we couldn’t go on that basis.

AMY GOODMAN: And by joint venture, you mean the U.S. and Saudi Arabia cooperating in holding Ahmed Omar Abu Ali?


AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you for being with us. Ashraf Nubani, the lawyer for the Arab American student who was just convicted. He will be sentenced in February.

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Torture and Survival in a Saudi Prison: William Sampson Recounts his 2 1/2 Year Ordeal, Calls Torture “Morally Wrong, a Political Mistake” and Useless for Intelligence Gathering

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