Naji Hamdan’s Nightmare

Naji Hamdan’s Nightmare

An American auto-parts businessman says he was tortured in the UAE–with US complicity. 


Beirut, Lebanon

At only one point in his story did Naji Hamdan cry. Sitting in an office chair as he recounted how he was arrested, tortured and ultimately convicted of terrorism charges in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), his voice barely wavered. Only when he described how Emirati interrogators threatened to rape his wife in front of him if he did not confess to charges of supporting Al Qaeda did he lose control, pausing to accept a fistful of Kleenex before he continued his story.

"For two weeks I could not stand on my feet. I had to use the help of a Nepali guard to drag me to the bathroom," he said of a period following a particularly brutal beating, around three weeks into his two-month detention.

Hamdan, 43, was born in Lebanon and moved to the United States in 1984. He studied aerospace engineering, worked at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) as an aircraft mechanic, then for Northrop Grumman, and eventually opened his own auto parts business, HondAcura Palace. In his downtime, he played soccer, camped and hiked, and as of 1992 began raising his son, Khaled. A few years later he became a naturalized citizen. A devout Sunni Muslim, he was active in the Muslim community and helped to found the Islamic Center of Hawthorne, in Southern California.

In 1999 the Federal Bureau of Investigation visited him at home, inquiring about a possible millennial terrorist attack. The bureau also interrogated others in the local Muslim community, asking whether they knew of any imminent plots.

"They asked if I knew any terrorists, would I go and tell them," said Hamdan. "Of course I would. My kids were going to school there. I have businesses there."

Hamdan’s brother Hossam, who goes by the name Sam, got a visit too. At the time, he recalled, "We were like, What the hell are they talking about?"

The FBI kept Hamdan on its radar for the next ten years, contacting him, he estimates, on six occasions. Officials asked about his business, his political beliefs and whether he knew Osama bin Laden (he knew bin Laden as well as anyone else did at the time, "from the media," as he put it). During this time, air travel became increasingly difficult for him; he was often stopped and questioned for hours, on one occasion missing a flight out of LAX.

Hamdan moved his family to Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates in 2006, where he hoped to expose his children to Islamic culture and the Arabic language, as well as the American culture of business and entrepreneurship. There, he thought, they could have "the best of both worlds." He had heard it was "more modern and developed" than the rest of the region.

"And peaceful," added his wife, a look of pained irony on her face.

Even after relocating, he continued to face harassment at airports and particularly on trips back to the United States, where he and Sam continued to operate the auto parts business. On one visit in March 2007, he says, he was interrogated at LAX for more than four hours, followed by SUVs with tinted windows and repeatedly photographed. He cut his trip short.

"They were kind of pushing me out of the country as if I’m not an American citizen anymore," he said. "And that is sad."

That treatment was gentle compared with the reception he got from the government of the United Arab Emirates. At noon on August 26, 2008, six weeks after FBI agents had summoned him for about four hours of interrogation at the US Embassy in Abu Dhabi, he got a call saying his car, parked downstairs from his apartment, had been in an accident. The sun shining, he went downstairs in shorts and a T-shirt (he had been napping) to check his vehicle. Emirati officials arrived on the scene, handcuffed and blindfolded him, and drove away in custom-made SUVs with tinted windows.

Held incommunicado for one month and twenty-three days, Hamdan says he was subject to near-daily beatings and torture for the first few weeks, after which the beatings slowed to every few days. In between he was left in total isolation.

"I don’t know if it’s a tactic or not," he said, "but it was painful also to leave me without even the guard talking to me."

The beatings were intended to elicit a confession of in-
volvement with a rotating cast of terrorist groups that would change from one day to the next. Initially, Hamdan protested his innocence. But the threat against his wife was too much, and he broke down.

"The interrogator said, You’re going to sign a confession that you’re with Al Qaeda and put your fingerprint on it," Hamdan remembers. But a few days later, he was taken from his cell to another interrogator, who said he’d received information "from a friendly country" that Hamdan was supporting the Gaza-based Palestinian group Hamas.

"He said, You have to change your confession," said Hamdan. Still fearing for his wife, he told them, "Listen, I’ll do whatever you want."

Hamdan quickly came to believe that his Emirati interrogators were acting at the behest of the United States; at one point they questioned him about his recent interview with the FBI at the embassy, asking him why he was tense during their meeting.

"I didn’t think of it when I first got detained, but when the beatings started, I knew right away," he said.

During one interrogation, Hamdan said, he believed an American interrogator was present in the room. He identified the man by his accent and his dress, which differed from the rest of the interrogators, who were wearing either white robes, a traditional men’s dress in the Gulf, or the uniform that high-ranking military officers wear.

"From underneath my blindfold, I could see feet. He had on gray suit pants and black dress shoes," said Hamdan, "and he had a pure American accent. I encountered the FBI several times before. I have no doubt he was FBI."

As UAE agents introduced him to their full spectrum of torture techniques (a freezing cold isolation room, an electric chair they sat him in and threatened to turn on, kicks and punches to his already frail liver), his family searched in vain to discover his whereabouts. His wife says she went to the State Security offices and was told they’d never heard of her husband. She also says she called the US Embassy and the State Department, where staff claimed they were unaware of his case. Hamdan’s brother Sam said he called Joshua Stone, an FBI agent who had interviewed Hamdan in Abu Dhabi.

"They weren’t interested in talking about him," Sam recalled. "If he really didn’t know what was happening to Naji, he would have been more interested. He’d want to know more," he concluded. At one point, he suggested to Stone that perhaps Naji was suspected of stealing cars, since he dealt in used automobiles.

"The guy laughed and said, ‘Criminally? It’s not that,’" Sam said.

The Hamdan family reached out to the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed a habeas corpus suit in a Washington, DC, district court in November 2008. Although the judge dismissed the case in August 2009, finding a lack of jurisdiction, the suit shone light on Hamdan’s predicament for the first time and highlighted the responsibility of the US government to attend to the detention of one of its citizens.

"One month and twenty-three days," said Hamdan incredulously of the time he was held incommunicado. "Normally if [Abu Dhabi authorities] detain a US citizen, they should report it to the embassy right away. But they did not."

After that period, Hamdan met with Sean Cooper, the consular chief for the US Embassy in Abu Dhabi. Three days before they met, his captors took his measurements, and on the day of the meeting gave him a brand-new outfit–shoes, pants, a shirt, underwear and socks–and a warning: "You better behave, because if you tell them anything, you’re coming back to us, and you know what’s going to happen." Looking spiffy, he arrived to find three Emirati officials, who would be present throughout the interview. He tried to use body language to indicate to Cooper that all was not well.

"He asked if I was being mistreated," remembered Hamdan, "and as I said no, I would turn my face to the side. Later, when I saw him, he said he had no idea something was wrong."

After their meeting, the beatings stopped, although another month passed before Hamdan was transferred to criminal custody. According to his lawyer, Jennie Pasquarella of ACLU Southern California, instead of helping the Hamdans secure Naji’s release, the US government put up "major roadblocks at every turn." She and her colleagues were unable to persuade lawmakers to take up Hamdan’s case publicly (she imagines they were "skittish" about "championing the case of someone labeled a terrorist") and got "the runaround" both in Washington and the Emitates.

"Even Congress has had little success at obtaining information about people the US has asked other countries to detain. Although our government is responsible for their detention, there is a black hole of information about those cases," she said.

In April 2009 Pasquarella and her colleagues obtained a nugget of information about a prior case that shed light on the possible circumstances of Hamdan’s arrest and detention. A Freedom of Information Act request filed by the British House of Commons All Party Parliamentary Group on Extraordinary Rendition turned up an e-mail from US Immigration and Customs Enforcement that read, "At this time [redacted] is the only one we can get to. He is currently being held by the UAE pending our ability to do a Extraordinary Rendition." This e-mail, and America’s historically warm economic and diplomatic relationship with the UAE, suggests that collusion in the field of counterterrorism would not be unheard of. Hamdan, who was not being held by the US, could not have been subject to extraordinary rendition–in which suspects are transferred from US to foreign custody–but his arrest fits the profile of a "proxy detention," in which the United States requests that someone be taken into custody in a foreign country.

The Bureau of Consular Affairs in Washington, the United Arab Emirates office of the State Department, the US Embassy in Abu Dhabi and an Abu Dhabi government spokesman all declined to comment on the case. Laura Eimiller, a spokeswoman for the FBI’s Los Angeles field office, said that the bureau does not confirm or deny investigating Hamdan, but she added that the US government did not request a proxy detention in Hamdan’s case.

With Hamdan’s trial approaching in Abu Dhabi Federal Supreme Court last year, the FBI continued to investigate his businesses in America. It subpoenaed Daniel Sieu, 49, a former customer of Hamdan’s who is the executive director of the Los Angeles-based Asian Pacific Revolving Loan Fund. Sieu had made several small loans to Hamdan as he expanded his business and bought small parcels of real estate. In January 2009 the FBI asked Sieu for everything in his files on Hamdan, which he says consisted of "a few basic loan applications." He was never called in for questioning and has not gotten back any of the material he submitted.

"Naji is a very nice guy," he said. "I consider him a friend."

The FBI also pursued another friend of Naji’s, Jehad Suliman, beginning in 2002 with interrogations at HondAcura Palace, where Suliman is the manager. In July 2009, as Hamdan’s case was playing out in Abu Dhabi, Suliman estimates that roughly a dozen agents entered his home with a search warrant relating to MediCal fraud. They seized a number of possessions, including documents unrelated to MediCal that referred to Hamdan and HondAcura Palace.

On January 29 of this year, Pasquarella filed a FOIA request for further information on the government’s activities related to the Hamdan brothers and Suliman, but she expects it will take substantial litigation before anything comes to light.

Ultimately, after five hearings in front of Abu Dhabi’s Federal Supreme Court, Hamdan was convicted of support for and spreading of terrorism. The prosecutor’s case relied on Hamdan’s signed confessions and a transcript of a chat-room conversation from a jihadi website in which Hamdan says he was not even a participant. According to Hamdan, in the course of the trial, he was accused of membership in six different terrorist groups, including Al Qaeda, Ansar al-Islam of Iraq and Fatah al-Islam.

Sitting in their living room in his eighth-floor apartment in Mar Elias, a busy commercial neighborhood in Beirut, and discussing his verdict, Hamdan and his wife still have trouble accepting it. "How could he have had the time" to be involved with all of these groups, his wife wondered aloud, while running an international auto parts business?

"They’re six different organizations that are against each other," pointed out Hamdan.

Pasquarella, who was barred from attending one of the sessions on the pretext that the trial chamber’s air-conditioning was broken, called the trial "a facade for political processes." A respected human rights lawyer in the UAE, who did not wish to be identified because of previous government harassment, said that while the UAE Supreme Court is generally independent, on national security issues it toes the government line.

According to Hamdan, the prosecutor had sought four counts of the death penalty and four counts of life imprisonment, which he was eligible for under the UAE 2004 anti-terrorism legislation. Instead, the court gave him an eighteen-month time-served sentence, essentially setting him free despite a finding of guilt.

"I knew I was not going to be acquitted, because it would show their guilt, but I was still hoping they would go back to their conscience and acquit me," he said resignedly. "I wasn’t relieved at the sentence, though, because now I’m considered a terrorist."

After nine days and a bit of paperwork, he was deported to Lebanon.

Now he mostly spends his days with his wife, mother
and son, relaxing and looking after his health. His father died in October 2008; Hamdan said he died of a heart attack upon hearing of his son’s detention. Recently his brother Sam received a notice addressed to Naji that his aircraft mechanic’s license was being rescinded by the Transportation Security Administration. Hamdan still suffers pains in his wrists, neck and shoulders from the beatings, and he is taking medication for his liver and kidneys. But it is the mental scars that most stubbornly refuse to heal.

"Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night, just thinking about it," he said. "What bothers me the most is the unfairness of it all…. I got beaten, tortured and forced to sign something I didn’t even read. I left all my wealth over there in that country, and I’m here, empty-handed, with these memories that are eating me alive."

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