ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia—The U.S. government will let Ethiopian authorities decide the fate of a 24-year-old American who was held here incommunicado for more than five weeks, the State Department said Thursday.
The Ethiopians haven't told American officials what charges, if any, they plan to bring against Amir Mohamed Meshal of Tinton Falls, N.J., at a hearing to determine whether he can be held as a prisoner of war—or when the hearing will occur.
The FBI has determined that Meshal wasn't a combatant in the recent war in Somalia and broke no U.S. laws. However, he could face life in prison or the death penalty if he's convicted of violating Ethiopia's anti-terrorism laws or taking up arms against Ethiopian forces, according to Ethiopian lawyers familiar with such cases.
The State Department made clear Wednesday evening that it would allow the Ethiopian legal process to take its course.
"We have asked that his case be handled in a timely and a fair manner in accordance with local laws and procedures," said Gonzalo Gallegos, a State Department spokesman in Washington.
U.S. officials in Addis Ababa had refused to answer a McClatchy Newspapers reporter's questions for several days, but they indicated considerable frustration when they received permission from Washington Thursday evening to describe their dealings with the Ethiopian authorities. U.S. officials gained access to Meshal on Wednesday after three weeks of "trying very hard," a U.S. official said in the Ethiopian capital. "We are still trying to understand the nature of his being held." The official and others spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case.
The U.S. government's reluctance to seek Meshal's freedom provoked a strong response from Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., Meshal's congressman. "If our friendly partner, Ethiopia, has not charged an American citizen, then the United States should demand that he be released," he told McClatchy Newspapers.
Meshal was able to send a message to his family through U.S. officials, according to his father. "Pray for me," he told his parents. "Forgive me for any troubles I may have caused." To his three brothers, he said: "What's up?" And to his younger sister, he said, "Do a good job in school."
Mohamed Meshal, the young man's father, charged the U.S. government with being "very deceitful and untruthful."
"I felt all along that the State Department and the FBI have known my son's whereabouts from day one, and they know he was not accused of any crimes, but handed him over to a third country. He has nothing to do with Ethiopia, and this happened under their supervision," he told McClatchy Newspapers.
Meshal's case has been shrouded in secrecy since he was arrested while fleeing hostilities in Somalia in late January. He's been held incommunicado in Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia.
Meshal told Kenyan human rights monitors that he was twice driven to a local hotel to be interviewed by the FBI. According to Meshal's father, when the FBI determined that there wasn't sufficient cause to charge Meshal, the State Department told him that Meshal would be sent home. But for reasons that remain unclear, the Kenyan government then deported Meshal and about 80 other people who had sought refuge in Kenya back to war-torn Somalia, from which he and others were then flown to Ethiopia.
State Department, FBI and CIA officials appear to disagree on who was to blame for Meshal's secret deportation. Some U.S. officials blame the CIA for not using its influence to prevent the deportation, which the State Department said it had formally protested. The FBI has disclaimed any responsibility, saying it wanted to continue questioning Meshal in Kenya. Officials in other agencies are pointing the finger at the Justice Department, which directs the FBI.
Meshal has an attorney, a U.S. official in Addis Ababa said, but it's not clear what charges he could face. Ethiopian authorities have said they're holding an unspecified number of prisoners from foreign countries in connection with December's conflict in Somalia, when Ethiopian troops with U.S. support ousted Islamist militias that U.S. officials had linked to al-Qaida.
Meshal was among at least 150 people arrested in Kenya and questioned about possible links to the Islamic Courts movement, which briefly ruled Somalia until it was toppled by the U.S.-backed Ethiopian army. Another American, Daniel Joseph Maldonado, was taken into U.S. custody and charged last month in federal court in Houston with training in al Qaida camps in Somalia.
The embassy official in Ethiopia said of Meshal: "We try to do everything we can to make sure he's OK while in custody, make sure he's in contact with family and has a lawyer."
The difficulty the embassy faced in gaining access to Meshal suggested that Ethiopian authorities were taking his case seriously.
Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's regime has cracked down in recent years on dissidents and rebel groups along its restive eastern border with Somalia and are holding incommunicado Ethiopian rebels who are believed to have fought alongside Somalia's Islamists. The U.S. State Department, in its 2006 human rights report, said prisoners in Ethiopia were at risk of torture and other abuses.
"The government is very tough on matters affecting the security of the state," said Tameru Agegnehu, a longtime judge and now president of the Ethiopian Bar Association. "I don't think they will be lenient on this matter."
(Landay reported from Washington.)
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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