Independent news has never been so important.

Did you know that you can get Democracy Now! delivered to your inbox every day? Sign up for our Daily News Digest today! Don't worry, we'll never share or sell your information.

Justice Dept. Accuses U.S. Citizen Jailed in Saudi Arabia for 20 Months Without Charge of Plotting to Kill Bush

Media Options

We take a look at the case of Ahmed Omar Abu Ali, the U.S. citizen who spent nearly two years in a Saudi prison, where he says he was tortured before being returned to the United States. He now stands accused of plotting to kill the president. We speak with one of his lawyers and a family friend. [includes rush transcript]

Today we take a look at the case of Ahmed Omar Abu Ali–the U.S. citizen who spent nearly two years in a Saudi prison without charge before being returned to the United States where he now stands accused of plotting to kill the president.

This is his story: Ahmed Omar Abu Ali was born in Houston and raised in Virginia. In 1999, he graduated as valedictorian of the Islamic Saudi Academy in Alexandria. He moved to Saudi Arabia the following year to continue his religious studies.

In June 2003, the Saudi government–apparently acting in consultation with US officials–arrested Abu Ali while he was taking his final exams at the Islamic University of Medina.

Even though he was never charged with a crime, Abu Ali remained in a Saudi jail for the next 20 months, where he was reportedly tortured.

His parents claimed that he was being held at the behest of the US government, and sued in court to get him returned to this country. This past December, federal judge John Bates wrote in an opinion, “there has been at least some circumstantial evidence that Abu Ali has been tortured during interrogations with the knowledge of the United States.”

Abu Ali was flown to the United States this week where the Justice Department accused him of plotting to assassinate President Bush with members of Al Qaeda. The indictment charged that Abu Ali, “discussed plans” to kill the president either by shooting him or detonating a car bomb. The plot apparently never advanced beyond the talking stage. If convicted of all charges, Abu Ali faces up to 80 years in prison. In a subsequent filing Wednesday, federal prosecutors asked that Abu Ali remain in jail pending trial. They also revealed another interesting fact: The only other witness to the alleged conversations Abu Ali allegedly took part in was killed in September 2003.

Also in the filing, the Justice Department denied that Abu Ali was tortured in Saudi Arabia and said he never made any claims of abuse to American officials as he was being returned.

Abu Ali’s family is planning to pursue a lawsuit accusing the administration of being behind their son”s detention. After the indictment, Abu Ali’s mother spoke to reporters outside the courtroom.

  • Faten Abu Ali, mother of Ahmed Omar Abu Ali, speaking to reporters outside the courtroom.
  • Edward McMahon, Ahmed Omar Abu Ali’s Attorney speaking to reporters outside the courtroom.
  • David Cole, professor at Georgetown Law School and author of the book “Enemy Aliens: Double Standards and Constitutional Freedom in the War on Terrorism.” He represented the Abu Ali family in their habeas corpeus petition challenging Ahmed’s detention in Saudi Arabia.
  • Shaker Elsayed, a friend of the Abu Ali family and member of the executive committee of the Islamic Center where Ahmed Omar Abu Ali went to pray.

Related Story

StoryNov 28, 2005Torture 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
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: After the indictment, Abu Ali’s mother spoke to reporters outside the courtroom.

FATEN ABU ALI: Regarding this plotting about our President, it’s a joke. It’s more lies. I can just say because my son was tortured, these, you know, indictments came — it’s lies over lies.

AMY GOODMAN: Faten Abu Ali, the mother of Ahmed Omar Abu Ali. The attorney in the criminal case, Edward McMahon spoke moments later.

EDWARD McMAHON: We’re somewhat saddened by the thought that it’s come to the position now that our government apparently is prepared to use evidence that’s been produced by torture in a criminal case in the United States of America.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined on the phone right now in Washington by Abu Ali’s other lawyer, David Cole. He’s professor at Georgetown Law School and author of the book: Enemy Aliens: Double Standards and Constitutional Freedom in the War on Terrorism. He represents the Abu Ali family in their habeas corpus petition challenging Ahmed’s detention in Saudi Arabia. We’re also joined by Shaker Elsayed, a friend of the Abu Ali family and a member of the Executive Committee of the Islamic Center where Ahmed Omar Abu Ali went to pray. We start with David Cole. Can you explain this case, why he was imprisoned in Saudi Arabia and how you got him back to the United States?

DAVID COLE: Well, he was arrested in Saudi Arabia at the same time that three other Americans were arrested in Saudi Arabia. The three others were brought back to the United States for trial in conjunction with the Virginia paintball case, a case involving an alleged conspiracy to provide material support to a terrorist group in Kashmir. One of his closest friends was one of the people brought back and was acquitted on all charges. But apparently the government didn’t have enough evidence to charge Ahmed Abu Ali with the paintball charges and so while his name came up in the case at various points, they never charged him. But instead, they let the Saudis keep him locked up and they participated in his interrogation while he was locked up in Saudi Arabia. And were apparently content to just leave him locked up there for as long as they could. When we filed a lawsuit challenging that detention and charging that he was being held at the behest of the United States, and his judge ordered that the government disclose to us the evidence concerning its arrangements with Saudi Arabia on the holding of this U.S. citizen, at that point, the government went through incredible lengths to try to stop having to provide that information, including filing motions to dismiss entirely in secret with all the arguments and all the evidence and secrets and ultimately they indicted him, and brought him back here to the United States. Now at least he’ll face a public trial.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Now when he was being held in Saudi Arabia, was he under Saudi charges at all or — and did the U.S. government, if it had some involvement, recognize that he has some kind of a right to at least an attorney while he was being held there?

DAVID COLE: No. I mean, this is a remarkable thing. He was never charged with anything in Saudi Arabia. And, you know, you would think that if a U.S. citizen were locked up for, you know, a month, a week without charges in a foreign country, there would be — we would be filing protests, we would be making a stink, etc. No. Instead what we were doing was we were, you know, sending the F.B.I. over to observe and participate in his interrogation. We weren’t making any protests, lodging any protests whatsoever. He was not entitled to an attorney while he was there. He didn’t see a single person while he was there except for his Saudi interrogators and the U.S. consular official who would occasionally go and visit him. That was it. He was effectively held incommunicado. And not a protest was filed and no action was taken until the Federal judge in the United States was, you know, on the verge of ordering the government to disclose the nature of its arrangement with Saudi Arabia in this case.

AMY GOODMAN: The charge, the allegation that Ahmed Abu Ali was tortured, his lawyer in court said he would show the judge, saying he would pick up his shirt and the A.P. report quotes his father outside the courtroom, Omar Abu Ali saying he knew his son was being tortured at the prison in Al-Hayar prison in Riyadh because of the words the young man blurted out in his first phone call home after being arrested. I’ve been on a long trip in a wild jungle, Omar Abu Ali said his son told him. The father said he was terrified by the call because he knew it was code for being tortured. We’re joined, as I said, in addition to David Cole, we are joined by a family friend, Shaker Elsayed. Can you talk about these charges of torture and what he was telling his family?

SHAKER ELSAYED: The first call that came —

AMY GOODMAN: If you could speak as loud as you possibly can. It’s very hard—


AMY GOODMAN: Oh, that’s perfect.

SHAKER ELSAYED: Ok. The first call that came, the family —- the father and the mother were pressing Ahmed to tell them about his well-being. They didn’t hear from him for two months since he was arrested. So, the first question was how are you doing? How is your well-being, how is your health, are you ok? And the first statement that he came up with is, “Consider me in a long journey in a wild jungle,” was really a very strong reason for them to freak out. They really couldn’t say anything. They said, “Take care of yourself, you will be safe,” and tried to be strong and give him some support. But that was very stunning. But it was known all along that Ahmed was held incommunicado in his incarceration. The first two months and then from in September 2003, for three other months and that was the time when four F.B.I. agents went to interrogate Ahmed for about a full week of interrogation. Very extensive interrogation. Ahmed did not talk back to his family because he was, again, put in solitary confinement for three consecutive months. Between the two periods, Ahmed was talking to his family every two weeks. Regularly. On regular basis every other Saturday. The time was different every time. But Saturday was a day they awaited a call every two weeks. Then the third time that he was also incommunicado detention was the period between November 16 and November 20, or November 20 until he was extradited to the United States. So, these are three periods, you count two months, three months, and about three more months, that’s about 50% of the period, and he only spoke once before he was extradited and he did not know at that time anything about his extradition or any information about what was going on. But at that time, the U.S. government had already set in motion, after the judge in D.C. established for them very clearly that he was not going to take seriously the motion to dismiss on secret evidence, and he was asking them to bring whatever that bears on the case from their perspective. They filed nothing when that came. Professor Cole filed an answer to the dismissal motion, which was very strong and very impressive, and the government knew they were losing the case -—

JUAN GONZALEZ: If — if I can ask you just for one second. You are a long-time friend of Ahmed’s. Can you tell us a little bit about him, and what about the government charges that he did participate in training in Al Qaeda camps. Is there any validity to that at all and can you tell us a little bit about that as a person?

SHAKER ELSAYED: Ahmed is a very, very pleasant person. I knew him before he was born because we were neighbors for over 20 years. Ahmed is a very nice person, very sociable, he told jokes, he played with kids, he spent time helping people, he participated in interfaith activities. He lived in an apartment complex where winter came Ahmed would be the first one to take the elderly cars and clean them from snow and other things. He was this kind of person. A serious person, a very respectful person. Listen to this. We reached out to the community to tell them, listen, Ahmed is coming and we got literally tens of people coming with their homes, with their jewelry, with their money, saying, “We love him. He is our son.” This is how much confidence and trust the community has in him.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re also joined on the line by David Cole. At this point, what happens?

DAVID COLE: Well, at this point, you know, what he is facing serious criminal charges. Criminal charges that I think are going to be very difficult for the government to actually prove out because if you — if you look at the indictment, it consists almost entirely of statements from — or paraphrases of allegations from unidentified quote-unquote co-conspirators, all of whom are in Saudi Arabia and are presumably Saudis who were captured and interrogated by the Saudis. So, I think the first question in the case is going to be, you know, can the government proceed with a criminal indictment of a U.S. citizen who it had locked up by another country for 20 months without charges. Can it do that consistent with the due process clause of the Constitution, can it do that consistent with the Speedy Trial Act? The next question is going to be, if they can go forward at all, can they rely on any evidence that they obtained from the Saudi Intelligence Service, a service which is well known and accused by the United States repeatedly of engaging in torture, a routine matter of interrogation. So, I think that, you know, there was a statement in The Washington Post quoting a government official who said they would have preferred to have left Ahmed in Saudi Arabia rather than bring him in to charge him here because their case against him is so thin. I think we’ll see that as we go forward.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, I wanted to ask Shaker Elsayed. There was a piece in The New York Times that said, “Mr. Abu Ali’s case and his alleged ties to terrorism have focused renewed attention on the Islamic Saudi Academy, the school in suburban Washington from which he graduated as Valedictorian in 1999. The school founded in 1984 for the children of expatriate Saudis has come under scrutiny before because of accusations of extremism and possible terrorism against other alumni employees.” and then it says, quotes a letter to the Saudi Ambassador by Senator Charles Schumer, the Democrat of New York, who is pressing for answers about the school’s finances and whether it has ties to extremism. Can you respond to that?

SHAKER ELSAYED: Well, I can say one thing. The campaign against Saudi Arabia, the campaign to portray Islam and all its sources, methods and shapes as an extreme religion that teaches violence and so on and so forth is a media and government campaign to justify, you know, the next upcoming policy change towards Saudi Arabia. You know that the United States withdrew its bases from Saudi Arabia and moved to Qatar. The CENTCOM now is in Qatar, and there is a shift and that shift has to be justified and, of course, there are appearances and to push that direction that the 15 hijackers among the 19 came from Saudi Arabia. But I can tell you that the school where my own children go to is neither an extremist school, nor does it teach extremism. More than 60% of the teachers there are non-Muslims. So, it just is inconceivable that the media is so blinded by the waves and unwilling to be critical. And I believe Senator Schumer incidentally, has his own ties with the Jewish lobby and the Zionist lobby and I’m not sure that any of this could not be taken — or rather could be taken without a grain of salt.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, David Cole, final comment.

DAVID COLE: Well, I think the real — You have to ask what is our country coming to when it locks up its own citizens abroad in order to avoid any kind of significant judicial review and then charges them with the statements of dead people involving conversations and no more. What have we come to in the war on terrorism? This is how far the government is pushing to try to show results in its efforts.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, David Cole and Shaker Elsayed, I want to thank you both for joining us.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

Next story from this daily show

Shocking Weapons: Taser Launches Campaign to Market New Model to U.S. Public

Non-commercial news needs your support

We rely on contributions from our viewers and listeners to do our work.
Please do your part today.
Make a donation