The U.S. and Mr. Abu Ali

February 24, 2005

BY UNSEALING a federal indictment against Ahmed Omar Abu Ali, the U.S. government garnered headlines about an alleged terrorist plot, instead of the unexplained imprisonment of an American citizen in Saudi Arabia. By producing the 23-year-old Islamic student in a federal court in Virginia on charges he conspired to kill the president, it portrayed Mr. Abu Ali has someone other than a victim of torture. The government may think its secret is safe. But it isn't.

The detention of Mr. Abu Ali by the Saudis needs a full airing. A lawsuit filed by Mr. Abu Ali's parents to win his release charged that his imprisonment was at the behest of the U.S. government. But more disturbing is the allegation that the young man was tortured and the United States government knew about it. That would suggest the Abu Ali case is a variation on a U.S. policy known as "extraordinary rendition." The policy basically allows for the contracting out of interrogation of terror suspects to allies whose methods would be illegal here. In other words, torture.

U.S. District Judge John D. Bates, who heard the Abu Ali lawsuit, saw merit in the case. Faten and Omar Abu Ali fought to win their son's release through a writ of habeas corpus, a common law right that seeks protection against illegal imprisonment. And although the government has "produced the body" - the young Mr. Abu Ali - the questions about his confinement remain.

Born in Houston and raised in suburban Virginia, the former University of Maryland engineering student was arrested in June 2003 while studying in Saudi Arabia. No charges were ever filed against him there or here - until Tuesday. But Mr. Abu Ali alleges that the Saudis had no claim against him and that the U.S. government controlled his detention. He also claims he was tortured while imprisoned by the Saudis and was prepared to prove it by disrobing in federal court the other day.

The indictment against him relies on statements from unnamed co-conspirators. The charges are indeed grave - plotting with al-Qaida operatives to assassinate President Bush. The government now has to prove them. But the seriousness of that case doesn't outweigh the gravity of Mr. Abu Ali's charges against the government.

The Bush administration's mixed record on the use of torture during the Iraq war is well known. A Canadian citizen has charged that the United States deported him to Syria for the sole purpose of skirting U.S. prohibitions against torture. In Mr. Abu Ali's habeas claim, the government never rebutted the charges of U.S. complicity in his arrest and detention. But the administration shouldn't be allowed to remain silent on this issue.

The interrogation techniques approved for use in Iraq have shown the government's tolerance of harsh tactics. The implementation of those methods has already sullied America's reputation. But torture isn't any more acceptable because Washington has someone else do its dirty work.

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