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Obama Talks Human Rights to Chinese President as US is Accused of Proxy Detention

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This post has been updated.

While President Obama was pressing Chinese President Hu Jintao on his country's human rights record on Wednesday, a 19-year-old American citizen from Virginia was stuck in a Kuwaiti prison, where he claims he was tortured, because the United States refused to let him return home.

Gulet Mohamed, a Somali-American abducted in Kuwait in December, says he was severely beaten and tortured, then questioned aggressively by American FBI agents. After Kuwaiti officials finally agreed to let him go home to the United States, he was blocked at the airport because he's on a U.S. government No Fly list.

On Tuesday, 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."

Called into a Virginia federal court Tuesday afternoon, Justice Department lawyers promised a disapproving judge that Mohamed would soon be heading home.

Even if he's returned to Virginia, though, that won't answer the larger question his detention and mistreatment in Kuwait raises: has the United States adopted a new policy of "proxy detention" of U.S. citizens by countries that engage in torture?

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 his 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, he says 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 Thursday to check on the status of the Justice Department's claim that Mohamed would 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 if so, 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.

Update:

Two days after filing his lawsuit, Gulet Mohamed was allowed to return to the United States early on Friday morning. The Washington Post reports that the 19-year-old was reunited with his family at Dulles International Airport. His lawyers said they were denied access to him at first because he was being questioned by the FBI, but they were later told that Mohamed was only being processed by Customs Agents. Mohamed told reporters at the airport that while imprisoned in Kuwait, he "was told by FBI agent I could have been in hole for 6 months, [and] nobody would know."

Because the Department of Justice was able to remove Mohamed from the No Fly list long enough for him to return home, his lawsuit, which challenged his alleged proxy detention by the United States in Kuwait, will likely be dismissed as moot.

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