By Jonathan S. Landay |
WASHINGTON – An American Muslim subjected to several years of intense FBI scrutiny and questioning about links to terrorism has been held without charges, access to a lawyer or contact with his family for nearly three months by the security services of the United Arab Emirates.
The case of Naji Hamdan, coupled with FBI interrogations of an American citizen secretly detained without charges in East Africa, raises the question of whether the Bush administration has asked other nations to hold Americans suspected of terrorism links whom U.S. officials lack the evidence to charge.
That allegation is central to a lawsuit that the American Civil Liberties Union was planning to file Tuesday in federal court in Washington against President Bush, Attorney General Michael Mukasey and FBI Director Robert Mueller.
“If the U.S. government is responsible for this detention and we believe it is, this is clearly illegal because our government can’t contract away the Constitution by enlisting the aid of other governments that do not adhere to the Constitution’s requirements,” said Ahilan Arulanantham of the ACLU’s southern California office.
The lawsuit, to be brought on behalf of Hamdan’s wife and brother, demands that the U.S. government extend to Hamdan his constitutional guarantee against illegal detention by asking the UAE to release him.
“The most elemental legal principles by which we govern ourselves cannot countenance the lawless detention of a United States citizen at the behest of his own government,” said a draft of the lawsuit provided to McClatchy by the ACLU.
A spokesman for the FBI’s Los Angeles office, Alonzo Hill, referred all inquiries about Hamdan, a former resident of the city’s Hawthorne neighborhood, to FBI headquarters in Washington, saying, “This is a counter-terrorism case.”
FBI headquarters disputed the allegation that it had asked the UAE to arrest Hamdan but acknowledged that it routinely interviews detainees held in foreign jails.
“The FBI does not ask foreign nations to detain U.S. citizens on our behalf in order to circumvent their rights,” said Special Agent Richard Kolko, a spokesman. “In terrorism matters, we routinely work with foreign counterparts and in some cases, with the permission of the host government, FBI Agents have been permitted to interview people who may possess relevant information.”
A State Department spokesman said the department had been aware of Hamdan’s detention and that a U.S. consular officer visited him nearly two months after he was arrested.
The UAE Embassy said in an e-mail to McClatchy that all questions should be directed to the police in Abu Dhabi, the UAE sheikhdom where Hamdan is being held, because the case “is related to a police/security matter, which involves a private U.S. citizen.”
Abu Dhabi, one of seven oil-rich sheikdoms, has cooperated closely with the Bush administration in cracking down against Islamist extremists following the 9/11 attacks.
Hamdan is a 42-year-old naturalized U.S. citizen who immigrated to California from Lebanon in the early 1980s to attend university on a scholarship, worked as an aircraft technician and then opened a used auto parts business in Hawthorne, where he served on the board of a local mosque.
Hamdan’s interaction with the FBI began in 1999, when agents visited him at his Hawthorne home and asked if he knew Osama bin Laden. The incident was recounted in a Los Angeles Times article on aggressive tactics used in FBI terrorism investigations.
Hamdan’s wife, Mona Mallouk, and brother, Hossam Hemdan, insisted that he’s never had any terrorism involvement or been charged with any crime despite the longtime FBI scrutiny.
“Naji hates war. He hates what happened on September 11. He hates terrorism,” Mona Hamdan said in a telephone interview from Beirut, Lebanon, where she and her children are living.
Hamdan moved to Abu Dhabi in 2006 and set up a business of importing used cars doing car repairs, but then moved his family to Beirut and traveled between the two countries.
In August, he was questioned at the U.S. embassy in Abu Dhabi by two FBI agents who flew out from Los Angeles. Several weeks later, UAE officials detained him, Mallouk and Hossam Hemdan said.
Hemdan, who owns automobile emissions testing stations in Los Angeles, said he arranged for Hamdan to meet the agents at the FBI’s request.
“He (Hamdan) said ‘That’s fine, I’ll see them,'” Hemdan recalled, adding that his brother later declined to discuss the meeting, except to say that “the agents know all this stuff about me and you and other people.”
“I believe they are intercepting my phone calls and emails,” Hemdan said of the FBI.
On Aug. 28, UAE security officers took Hamdan away as he, his wife and three children ate lunch in their Abu Dhabi apartment on the pretext of bringing him to a police station to sign papers related to a car accident, Mallouk said.
She said that when her husband failed to return, she began a fruitless search for him at police stations.
“I called the U.S. embassy . . . the next day. I was crying. They didn’t seem to care,” she related. “They said they would call back in an hour, but they didn’t call me back for six or seven days.”
The consular officer who telephoned confirmed that the embassy was aware of Hamdan arrest the day it occurred, said Mallouk, who hasn’t spoken to her husband since he made a brief call to her shortly after his arrest.
The case finds echoes in the secret detention in Kenya last year of Amir Mohammad Meshal, a New Jersey resident who was arrested fleeing the U.S.-backed Ethiopian invasion of Somalia.
Meshal, who had spent time in Somalia with suspected Islamic extremists, was interrogated by FBI agents in Nairobi, secretly flown back into Somalia, turned over to Ethiopian intelligence officers and then flown to the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, where he was imprisoned three months before being released without charges.
“I think you see a trend that reflects illegal detentions going underground or off the books, where the United States . . . out-sources detentions to other governments,” said Jonathan Hafetz, an ACLU attorney who’s involved in the Meshal and Hamdan cases.
Hemdan said the FBI visited his brother, himself and other Muslims in Hawthorne after the Sept. 11 attacks, showing them pictures of the hijackers and asking if they knew them. Agents called on Hamdan once at home and twice at his business, he said.
The brothers’ names were placed on watch lists at airports and they would be pulled aside and interrogated about ties to terrorist groups every time they entered or left the U.S., Hemdan said.
In 2006, Hamdan and his wife moved to the UAE. She said Hamdan was frustrated over the FBI’s scrutiny, and both were concerned about drugs and other problems at high school their eldest son was due to attend.
At Los Angeles International Airport, they and their luggage were rigorously searched and they were subjected to lengthy questioning that made them miss their flight, according to Mallouk.
In the UAE, Hamdan set up a used car and auto repair business. But he decided to move the family to Beirut because they have close relatives there and the UAE was too hot, she explained.
Last year, during a visit to Hawthorne, Hamdan came under intense FBI surveillance, according to Hemdan, with agents watching the brothers’ businesses, tailing them in automobiles and questioning their friends.
“Where ever he went, they chased him, government vehicles with black windows,” said Hemdan. “From my perspective, they wanted him to see them. They’d drive over the (lane) dividers and over curbs. They wanted to be seen so he gets scared and leaves. It’s like ‘You are not welcomed here.'”
“I told him to go to the Federal Building (in Los Angeles) and talk to the FBI. I gave him the number and he called and left a message, but they didn’t call him back,” he continued.
Earlier this year, Lebanese security officers detained Hamdan at Beirut airport as he prepared to board a flight to the UAE after visiting his family. They later ransacked the family’s house and confiscated two computers, a video game, papers and photos, Mallouk said.
Her husband was “slapped” while being interrogated for four days, during which he was accused alternatively of being an al Qaida member or working for Israeli or U.S. intelligence, she said. Khalid, 16, was also questioned for three hours.
Hamdan was released without charges.