Blog of Rights

ACLU Sues Government Officials on Behalf of American Citizen Illegally Detained in Africa

By Suzanne Ito, ACLU at 4:00pm

Today, the ACLU filed a lawsuit on behalf of Amir Meshal, an American citizen who was arrested and secretly imprisoned in Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia for four months. He was held in secret, without access to a lawyer or any process to contest his detention, and was never charged with a crime. He endured more than 30 harsh interrogations by U.S. officials during his detention.

A New Jersey native, Mr. Meshal was studying Islam in Mogadishu, Somalia, in December 2006 when hostilities broke out. Unable to flee the country by air because the airport had been disabled due to bombing, Mr. Meshal fled to neighboring Kenya by boat and wandered in the forest for three weeks seeking shelter and assistance before being arrested by a joint U.S.-Kenyan-Ethiopian task force. He was detained and turned over to U.S. officials, who interrogated him and sought to coerce him to confessing that he was connected to or had supported al Qaeda — connections and actions that Mr. Meshal steadfastly denied. One FBI agent threatened to send him to Egypt, where the Egyptians “had ways of making him talk.” Another FBI agent threatened to send Mr. Meshal to Israel, where, the interrogator said, the Israelis would “make him disappear.”

Mr. Meshal’s lawsuit charges that four U.S. government officials violated his Fifth Amendment right to due process and Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure. Mr. Meshal also claims that two of these officials — agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigations — threatened him with torture and disappearance in violation of his rights under the Torture Victim Protection Act of 1991. His complaint states:

The Constitution does not permit U.S. officials to threaten American citizens with forced disappearance, torture, and other serious harm, or otherwise to interrogate them coercively. Nor does the Constitution permit U.S. officials to evade the elementary commands of due process simply by directing, conspiring, and/or actively and substantially participating with a foreign state to detain, interrogate, or render U.S. citizens in a manner that would be patently unlawful if carried out by those U.S. officials themselves.

Nusrat Choudhury, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s National Security Project stated in a press release today:

American citizens abroad who are seeking refuge from hostilities deserve the assistance of their government in getting home safely. It is inexcusable that U.S. officials instead threatened Mr. Meshal with torture, participated in detaining him in secret and inhumane conditions and denied him the chance to contest his detention or contact his family.

The harsh treatment that Mr. Meshal endured should never be experienced by anyone, let alone an American citizen at the hands of his own government. American citizens don't relinquish their constitutional rights or their right to be protected from threats of torture and disappearance by U.S. officials when they're overseas.

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