Gulet Mohamed, the 19-year-old American citizen detained in Kuwait in December where he says he was tortured in prison could be on his way back to the United States soon, according to Justice Department lawyers. But that won't answer the larger question his detention and alleged torture in Kuwait raises: has the United States adopted a new policy of "proxy detention" of U.S. citizens by countries that engage in torture?
Yesterday, Mohamed's lawyers from the Council on American Islamic Relations filed a lawsuit in federal court, claiming that the United States' placement of Mohamed on a No-Fly list is keeping him stuck in a Kuwaiti prison, where he "has been subject to torture, beatings, and threats to his life and the lives of his family."
As I've explained in previous posts, Mohamed was reportedly placed on the No Fly list and detained for questioning in Kuwait because he visited Yemen in 2009. A Somali-American Muslim raised in Virginia, he says he went to Yemen to study Arabic, left there due to the political instability and was continuing his studies while living with an uncle in Kuwait. According to the legal complaint filed yesterday, when Mohamed went to the airport in Kuwait to renew his visitor's visa in December, he was abducted by two unknown men in civilian clothes and driven to an undisclosed location. There, he was beaten and interrogated under torture. In addition to the beatings, he claims, "the interrogators threatened to run currents of electricity through Mr. Mohamed's genitals." This went on for more than a week.
He was eventually transferred to a Kuwaiti detention center, where he remains today.
Mohamed and his lawyers believe that the U.S. was behind his arrest for several reasons. First, he claims the Kuwaiti interrogators "asked him detailed questions about his American siblings, referenced non-public facts regarding his family, and even had information about specific encounters Mr. Mohamed had in Virginia." The questioning was focused not on his actions in Kuwait but on Anwar Al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen and radical Muslim cleric who the United States has targeted for assassination. Kuwaiti officials have allegedly told Mohamed that he is being detained at the behest of the United States. Perhaps most significantly, he has been interrogated at least twice in the Kuwaiti prison by American FBI agents, who told him that he could return home only if he cooperated with them. At one point, the agents were shouting at him so aggressively in questioning him about Al-Awlaki that Kuwait guards intervened to end the interrogation.
According to his lawsuit, Mohamed managed to borrow a cell phone from another prisoner and called him family, who retained a lawyer for him. Although Mohamed repeatedly told the FBI agents that he did not want to answer their questions without his lawyer, they persisted for hours with aggressive questioning.
Mohamed's lawyer claims that Kuwaiti officials were willing to release Mohamed to the United States, but that when he arrived at the airport he was not allowed to board the United Airlines flight because of the No Fly restriction.
Within hours of the complaint's filing in Alexandria, Virginia, U.S. District Court Judge Anthony Trenga had ordered that the government appear in court that day to respond to the allegations. At the hearing that afternoon, Trenga reportedly said that the United States refusal to allow Mohamed to return to the United States appears to be "a clear violation of his rights." He scheduled a followup hearing for tomorrow.
Justice Department lawyers responded that Mohamed will soon be allowed to return to the United States.
Mohamed's return to Virginia would perhaps end his nightmarish ordeal. But it also could allow the Justice Department to avoid having to answer the broader question of whether it was behind Mohamed's arrest in Kuwait in the first place, and what legal authority it had to order such detentions by allies abroad. It will also allow the government to skirt the broader question of whether "proxy detention" has become the Obama Administration's version of "extraordinary rendition," which the Bush Administration used to allow interrogators abroad to question individuals suspected of terrorist ties, unconstrained by the prohibition on torture and other mistreatment imposed by U.S. law.
As I've noted before, Mohamed's is one of several cases of U.S. citizens who've traveled to Yemen, been detained and questioned abroad and then not allowed to return to the U.S. because they were placed on a No Fly list. At least one other of these men claims he was tortured in prison. None of them has been charged with terrorism.