An American citizen has been detained and tortured in the United Arab Emirates at the behest of the U.S. government, according to an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit filed in federal court.
The judge has called for a hearing today in Washington, DC, and ACLU lawyers say they hope to hear that their case on behalf of Naji Hamdan, 42, will go forward.
Hamdan, who had moved to Dubai several years ago after living in the U.S. for more than 20 years, becoming an American citizen, and raising a family in California, was arrested in August 2008 by state security forces of the UAE. Several weeks before the arrest, FBI agents interrogated Hamdan at the U.S. Embassy in Abu Dhabi, the lawsuit said.
In a handwritten statement given to the U.S. Embassy in Abu Dhabi, Hamdan said he was kept in a frigid cell with blinding lights on 24 hours a day, and only left to be interrogated and tortured and to go to the toilet.
"They sat me on an electric chair; they tied my wrists to it but they did not turn it on," Hamdan wrote in the statement. "He started punching me on the sides of my head, and slapping me straight to my head from the top…. I started to sweat then I lost conscious (sic)…"
He also said in the statement that one person spoke perfect English, and that he believes to be an American, was present at the interrogation: "He said do what they want or these people 'will [expletive] you up.'"
Hamdan said in his written statement, "I am not a terrorist, I never was, I am a regular American Muslim who's looking to raise his kids and live a comfortable life with his family," but that under the pressure of torture and threats of harm to his wife, he agreed to sign a self-incriminating document in prison.
UAE authorities have charged Hamdan with terrorism-related activities, and the Supreme Court there will hold a hearing on June 14.
Three months after he was detained, and one week after ACLU lawyers filed their lawsuit, Hamdan was moved from the high-security detention center to another jail in Abu Dhabi, where he can now communicate periodically with his family.
Justice Department Denies Participation by U.S. Authorities
Hamdan's brother, Hossam Hemdan, said he is extremely frightened about Naji's prospects at trial, particularly given that the Court in which he is being tried does not allow appeals and that he could be sentenced to death.
"This has been a nightmare for our family. My brother has always been an upstanding citizen, strong husband and able father. But when I saw him in prison, I hardly recognized him. He was frail, trembling and very fearful of the fate that awaits him," said Hemdan.
Hemdan, also a U.S. citizen, said he is frustrated that the U.S. has done nothing to try to secure his brother's release: "I don't understand how our own government can just pretend they know nothing. It's as if we aren't even Americans."
His lawyers say that given the intense surveillance of Hamdan, originally from Lebanon, over the past several years by the FBI - intense questioning at airports every time he or his relatives fly and the visit by FBI agents just weeks before his detention - they believe the U.S. government is behind his capture and interrogation.
"There is strong evidence that U.S. officials not only sought Hamdan's arrest by a foreign government, but apparently participated in his interrogation and torture in violation of federal criminal law," said Ahilan Arulanantham, an American Civil Liberties Union staff lawyer representing Hamdan through his brother and wife.
"We hope that the Obama Administration will do the right thing and work to ensure Hamdan's safe release from custody," Arulanantham added.
The Department of Justice has denied that U.S. authorities had anything to do with the detention of Hamdan.
Brad Garrett, former FBI agent and now an ABC News consultant, said that the majority of information the FBI would gather on someone like Hamdan would come from wiretapping his cell phone and home phone. He said they also commonly send sources or undercover agents with wires to talk to the person and possibly use surveillance videos.
"People get jammed up because of who they associate with and not what they do," said Garrett, who added that it is not uncommon for agents to fly overseas to question someone.
DOJ Moved to Have Case Thrown Out
Garrett said law enforcement agencies often work with other nations, especially friendly ones, and ask them to help with surveillance of a person they have been watching.
However, he said, the FBI cannot ask a foreign agency to use tactics that are illegal in this country: "It would have been against the rules for an FBI agent to even be in the room during an interview like that." He noted that just because the English-speaking person Hamdan heard sounded American, "we don't know if he was FBI."
The DOJ moved to have the case thrown out, citing in court documents that the U.S. does not have jurisdiction in the UAE, and that the FBI denied requesting the UAE to detain Hamdan or interrogate him while he has been in UAE custody.
The FBI said that it does not "ask other countries to detain U.S. citizens on our behalf" in order to circumvent their rights. "As to any ongoing lawsuit we have no comment," FBI spokesman Richard Kolko told ABC News.com.
Steven Pike, U.S. Embassy Public Affairs Officer in Abu Dhabi, said the Embassy is in contact with Hamdan and is "carrying out normal consular responsibilities."
Pike said he cannot comment further on the case because the state department does not have a Privacy Act Waiver that authorizes him to speak to the media.
The UAE Embassy in Washington, DC declined to comment, citing that this is a "police/security" matter.