A federal judge expressed doubts Monday about his authority to interfere in the case of a U.S. citizen who faces trial in the United Arab Emirates on terrorism charges based on statements he says he made while being tortured.
At the same time, U.S. District Judge James Robertson says he finds allegations that the United States may have ordered the arrest and interrogation of Naji Hamdan "extremely disturbing if they are true."
Hamdan has been in the custody of the United Arab Emirates since August and is scheduled to go on trial Sunday on three terrorism charges. Hamdan denies that he is a terrorist and says the only evidence against him are statements he made while being tortured by his interrogators, with an American official involved in the questioning.
The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit, suggesting that the United States ordered Hamdan's arrest, detention and prosecution because there isn't evidence to convict him under U.S. laws. They asked Robertson to order the United States to rescind its request that the United Arab Emirates pursue the case.
Justice Department lawyers argued that Robertson doesn't have the authority to get involved in a case that is being prosecuted by a sovereign foreign government under its own laws. Justice attorney Stephen J. Buckingham called the ACLU's request "remarkable" and said it has no precedent.
Robertson agreed with the government's position in throwing out part of the case, but gave both sides 10 days to file arguments about whether it should continue under other legal avenues even though he was skeptical.
"I suspect the answer is no," Robertson said when after a two-hour hearing. "I think it is unlikely I have power to do anything."
Arrested by UAE forces
Hamdan is a 43-year-old native of Lebanon who moved to the United States as a college student and became a citizen. He ran a successful auto parts business in the Los Angeles area, where he was active in the Islamic community.
Hamdan says the FBI began questioning him about whether he had terrorist ties in 1999, and he decided to move his family back to the Middle East in 2006 after 20 years in the United States.
But he says he was kept under constant surveillance by the U.S. government, with the FBI detaining him at the airport on a return visit to the United States and questioning him during a meeting at the U.S. Embassy in Abu Dhabi last summer.
Three weeks after the embassy meeting, he was arrested at his home by state security forces of the United Arab Emirates.
Hamdan says for three months he was kept in solitary confinement and questioned daily, with daily beatings, whipping of his feet, kicks to his abdomen, threats to his family, verbal abuse and being held in an electric chair that was never turned on.
He said an American was present for at least some of the questioning, who advised him to do what he was told to avoid further pain. ACLU attorney Ahilan Arulanantham says Hamdan didn't know who the person was, but the person spoke in perfect American English and was dressed differently from his captors.
Justice Department lawyers argued that could be any one, and they submitted a declaration from the FBI that its agents were not involved in his capture and did not share their opinions about the case with the United Arab Emirates. But the ACLU's attorney argued that doesn't rule out involvement from other U.S. agencies.
Robertson said the allegations in the lawsuit are "extremely disturbing if they are true, but I am required to look at the governing law."