1-7-2011By Daphne Eviatar
Senior Associate, Law and Security
Shortly after taking office, President Obama announced he’d close CIA prisons and end abusive interrogations of terrorism suspects by U.S. officials. But the Obama administration has notably preserved the right to continue “renditions” – the abduction and transfer of suspects to U.S. allies in its “war on terror,” including allies notorious for the use of torture.
Although the Obama Administration in 2009 promised to monitor more closely the treatment of suspects it turned over to foreign prisons, the disturbing case of Gulet Mohamed, an American teenager interrogated under torture in Kuwait, casts doubt on the effectiveness of those so-called “diplomatic assurances.” It’s also raised questions about whether the “extraordinary rendition” program conducted by the Bush administration has now been transformed into an equally abusive proxy detention program run by its successor.
On Thursday, The New York Times reported that a Somali-American teenager from Virginia traveling with a valid U.S. passport was placed on a U.S. government no-fly list because he had previously traveled to Yemen and Somalia. He was detained, interrogated and severely beaten in Kuwait. In a telephone interview with Times reporter Mark Mazzetti, Gulet Mohamed, a 19-year-old living in Alexandria, Virginia, said he was beaten, hit with sticks, threatened with electric shocks, forced to stand for hours at a time and warned that his mother would be imprisoned if he didn’t say more about his trips to Yemen and Somalia in 2009, his knowledge of the U.S.-born cleric Anwar al Awlaki, and his relatives in Somalia. At one point during the interrogation he was visited by three FBI agents who asked similar questions and agreed to “facilitate” his release if he would provide them information. If he didn’t, they said, they could not help him.
Mohamed has consistently said he traveled to Yemen to study Arabic, has never met with militants and is a good Muslim. “I despise terrorism,” he told Mazzetti.
According to Salon’s Glenn Greenwald, who also interviewed Mohamed and wrote about this on Thursday, Mohamed had valid visas for all the countries he visited and has never been arrested nor had any interaction with law enforcement, until his detention by the Kuwaitis two weeks ago. Mohamed was never even questioned by U.S. or foreign authorities until he moved to Kuwait to live with his uncle and continue his Arabic studies.
The FBI, State Department and Kuwaiti embassy all refused to respond to the Times‘ requests for comment, although they confirmed that Mohamed was placed on the no-fly list.
Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident. Last January, Sharif Mobley, an American citizen living in Yemen, was abducted on the streets of the Yemeni capital of Sana’a in January 2009, just two days after he’d gone to the U.S. embassy seeking a passport for his new baby so the family could return to the United States. According to his lawyer, Mobley was shot in the process, then blindfolded and taken to a hospital. There, while chained to a hospital bed, he was interrogated by two agents who identified themselves as U.S. government officials. He says they told him he would never see his family again and that he would be raped in a Yemeni prison. Over the next two weeks, Mobley says. he was beaten severely by Yemeni security forces while being moved between detention facilities after interrogations. He was not allowed to speak to U.S. embassy officials. He eventually tried to escape, and is accused of shooting his Yemeni guards in the process. He faces death by firing squad if found guilty.
Mobley has never been accused of terrorism, either in the U.S. or in Yemen. And like Mohamed, he was not even questioned by U.S. authorities until after he was living in Yemen and indicated a desire to return with his family to the United States.
These are just two of several incidents in the past year where Americans abroad have been arrested and interrogated about their travels to Yemen, where U.S. authorities believe terrorist plots have originated or been inspired by Anwar al-Awlaki, the U.S.-born cleric now on a U.S. government hit list. The United States in the past year has more than doubled its military aid to Yemen to encourage the Yemeni government to crack down on terrorism. Perhaps the Yemens now feel pressure to have something to show for it.
Meanwhile, many Americans with ties to Yemen have reportedly been placed on a no-fly list while abroad, detained and questioned, and then unable to return home even after their release.
Yahya Wehelie, for example, a 26-year-old Muslim American, was stopped after he left Yemen while changing planes in Egypt on his way home to Virginia last May. FBI agents told him he was on a no fly list and questioned him. Although eventually released without charge, he was then stuck in the Egyptian capital and unable to return home because of his placement on the no-fly list. He offered to fly home in handcuffs accompanied by air marshals, but was refused.
The U.S. reportedly almost doubled the number of names on its no-fly list after the attempted Christmas Day bombing on a plane bound for Detroit in 2009, from 3400 to about 6000 names.
This all raises some disturbing questions. While the U.S. may legitimately ask questions of passengers flying to or from Yemen, is it outsourcing those interrogations to countries known to engage in torture? Although publicly condemning abusive interrogation methods, has the U.S. created a new proxy detention system that amounts to extraordinary rendition-lite? And what criteria is the U.S. using to place such individuals on the no-fly list? Is that status being used as unofficial permission to foreign governments to detain and interrogate such individuals in whatever manner they see fit?
Mobley’s lawyer, Cori Crider from the UK-based organization Reprieve, has asked similar questions. In a Freedom of Information Act request sent in July she asked for information about U.S. agencies’ involvement in Mobley’s abduction, incommunicado detention and abusive treatment. Crider has asked for records pertaining to the “wider pattern of U.S.-sponsored sweeps and proxy detention in Yemen from January 2010, of which Mr. Mobley’s seizure is a part.”
The U.S. government has so far refused to provide any responsive documents.
Gulet Mohamed’s lawyer, Gaddeir Abbas from the Council on American Islamic Relations, has asked similar questions. In a letter to the Department of Justice posted by Greenwald, Abbas asked whether his client’s abduction was at the behest of U.S. authorities and whether they were aware that Mohamed was being tortured. Abbas has requested a full investigation.
The case of Mohamed, Mobley and others suggest that a thorough investigation is needed, not only of each of these cases but of whether the United States has a new policy of outsourcing abusive investigations to foreign countries, where U.S. citizens and others suspected by U.S. authorities cannot assert their basic rights.
If so, this new U.S. interrogation policy is disturbingly similar to those that the Obama administration early on so staunchly disavowed.
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