Amir Meshal (photo: The Public Record)

The ACLU was in court today to defend a US citizen, who was illegally detained and mistreated by US officials in Kenya and Ethiopia. The citizen, Amir Meshal, a man from New Jersey, was in Mogadishu, Somalia, studying Islam in December 2006 when violence erupted. He fled to Kenya in a boat, spent three weeks in a forest looking for shelter and assistance and was arrested by the joint US-Kenyan-Ethiopian task force.

After arrest, he fell victim to rendition and wound up back in Somalia and then Ethiopia. As the ACLU’s filed complaint reads, over four months and three days, “He was detained in three different countries without ever being charged, without ever being granted access to counsel and without ever being presented before a judicial officer.”

The complaint further alleges Meshal was interrogated “more than thirty times by US officials who failed to adhere to the most elementary requirements of the Fourth and Fifth Amendments and the Torture Victim Protection Act of 1991.” During interrogations, Meshal was threatened with torture, forced disappearance and forms of serious harm in an effort to coerce him to admit to committing a crime. His detention was also at the “behest of US officials,” with their participation and a result of conspiracy with the FBI and other foreign officials.

The lawsuit filed in 2009 charges two Supervising Special Agents of the FBI, Chris Higgenbotham and Steve Hersem, were both involved in “investigating non-Somalis apprehended along the Somali-Kenyan border in a joint US-Kenyan-Ethiopian operation” in December 2006 and violated Meshal’s rights. The lawsuit also charges that ten other individuals, John Does 1-10, were involved in the violation of Meshal’s rights as well.

Meshal was arrested on January 24, 2007, with four other men in a forest in Kenya He was surrounded by “thirty heavily armed Kenyan soldiers” who apprehended him and “stripped him to his underwear” and tightly bound his hands behind his back with a rope. A soldier asked him to identify himself and seized his US passport, social security card and $800 in cash. He was taken to a village called Kiunga, where seven or eight Kenyans interrogated him.

He was then transferred to Nairobi with a black hood over his head and his wrist tightly bound with a zip-tie. An officer with the Criminal Investigative Department (CID) in Kenya claimed he was being held so he could get out of Kenya and get back to the US and assured him that he would find out what the US wanted before he sent him to the US.

Meshal was detained in horrific conditions at Ruai Police Station for one week. He had no further interrogation but was denied access to an attorney:

During the first four days of his detention, Mr. Meshal wore only his underwear.  At that point, a prisoner whom Mr. Meshal had met in the jail and who was being released gave Mr. Meshal a pair of pants and a shirt.  At its most crowded, the small cell held twenty-nine individuals.  Mr. Meshal often slept standing up because he had nowhere to sit, let alone lay down.  The food and bathroom facilities were woefully inadequate, exacerbating an intestinal infection from which Mr. Meshal was suffering.

On February 3, 2007, Meshal left the police station and got into a dark blue Chevrolet Suburban with FBI agent Hersem. He thought he was leaving to the US Embassy. He hoped he would get a shower and new clothes and complained to FBI agent Hersem about the conditions. FBI agent Hersem laughed at Meshal and said  his buddy “Beantown,” Daniel Maldonado, had been talking about him. [Maldonado was seized in Kenya on January 21, 2007, and eventually sent back to the US after admitting to receiving Somalia military training.]

Next, Meshal was subjected to FBI interrogation where he was told to sign a “waiver of rights” document that said he couldn’t refuse to answer questions without a lawyer, informed he had to sign the document to go home, asked for a DNA sample because they suspected he might engage in a suicide bombing and was improperly classified as “East African al Qaeda,” despite there being no evidence at all that he was a member.

During one interrogation, FBI agent Higgenbotham threatened to send Mehsal to Israel where they would “make him disappear.” In another interrogation, he was threatened with being sent to Egypt and was warned by FBI agent Hersem that Egyptians “had ways of making him talk.” And he was told that by not admitting his connection to al Qaeda his grandkids could be affected by what he did.

He was rendered to Somalia on a privately chartered aircraft from Bluebird Aviation. He had a black hood placed on his head and could “barely sit in his seat because his hands were still awkwardly handcuffed.” Twelve other individuals were on the flight with him. He heard the plane was headed to Somalia and was terrified and certain he would die if he wound up back in the violence he had fled.

Upon landing this is what the ACLU claims happened:

…The men escorted Mr. Meshal and the other prisoners onto trucks and drove them to a place the prisoners later called “the cave.”  At the cave, the soldiers removed Mr. Meshal’s hood and directed him to descend steps to an underground room that was almost completely dark.  Armed men snipped the zip-ties that had held Mr. Meshal’s hands behind his back and chained his wrists in front of him.

Mr. Meshal remained handcuffed in the cave for two days.  He was terrified and thought that he was going to be executed.  The cave was approximately twenty-five square feet in size and did not contain any windows or toilets.  The cave was excruciatingly hot and Mr. Meshal had difficulty breathing.  Only a little light filtered through from small holes pierced into the door that led to the outside.  When guards opened this door, Mr. Meshal noticed that enormous cockroaches were clustered in the corners of the cell and large black millipedes were all over the walls…

The ACLU places his arrest, detention and rendition in the context of US involvement in the Horn of Africa. In 1998, the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were bombed. Civilian and military personnel was deployed to identify, arrest and detain individuals suspected of ties to terrorist organizations. This strategy led to the FBI Office of International Operations (OIO) and the FBI Legal Attaché office in Nairobi, Kenya, coordinating the deployment of FBI personnel.

By 2002, the US Department of Defense had declared Somalia “potential haven” for al Qaeda. Counterterrorism operations began along with the establishment of the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA), which would eventually operate in Yemen, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan, Kenya and Uganda. The FBI and CJTF-HOA began to conduct criminal investigations to apprehend, detain and interrogate individual alleged to have ties to terrorism. It also increased the use of “proxy detention,” the practice of having foreign authorities detain terror suspects at the direction and with the active participation of the United States.

In the aftermath of 9/11, the FBI formed “jump teams,” specially trained people who can travel around the world and conduct law enforcement. Kenyan authorities were offered financial rewards by the US government if they turned in “persons of interest” to the US and FBI. And, as a result more than a hundred people were arbitrarily detained between December 2006 and February, according to non-governmental organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

Jonathan Hafetz, cooperating attorney with the ACLU, argues, “Any American citizen caught in a hostile situation abroad would expect that his government would provide him assistance.”