Saudi security police say Ahmed Omar Abu Ali was like “a bag of water” in his initial interrogation, spilling forth with a confession that he was an al Qaeda member and that he discussed plans to assassinate President Bush.
Abu Ali, a U.S. citizen who grew up in Falls Church, said he gave a false confession only to put an end to torture he endured at the hands of the Saudi security force known as the Mubahith, whom Abu Ali said whipped him on his back, kicked him in his stomach and pulled on his beard and ears.
A federal judge must decide which version he believes after hearing closing arguments yesterday in a six-day pretrial hearing in Alexandria to determine whether a confession Abu Ali gave to the Saudis in July 2003 should be allowed as evidence at his upcoming trial.
The confession is the government’s key piece of evidence. If U.S. District Judge Gerald Bruce Lee tosses it out of court, the entire case could be dismissed. Prosecutors would have the option of appealing the ruling.
Judge Lee must decide whether he believes the testimony he heard from members of the Mubahith during an unusual deposition held in Saudi Arabia in July, or whether he believes Abu Ali, 24, who told his story for the first time Wednesday in court testimony.
Khurrum Wahid, Abu Ali’s attorney, said yesterday that the Mubahith officers simply were not credible in their testimony in July, when they said the Mubahith have never used force to extract a confession. The Mubahith also said that they did not interrogate Abu Ali until three days after his arrest, and that he confessed immediately when confronted with evidence gleaned from other al Qaeda members.
In fact, Mr. Wahid said, Abu Ali had been interrogated four or five times on the day of his arrest, and he agreed to cooperate only after being whipped.
“If Mr. Abu Ali had not been tortured in Medina, they would not have gotten a statement out of him,” Mr. Wahid said.
The State Department’s most recent human rights report on Saudi Arabia states that security forces there abuse prisoners.
Mr. Wahid said Abu Ali has been consistent in his account, and that if he had been lying, the Mubahith easily could have produced evidence to refute his claims. For instance, Abu Ali testified that when he returned to his jail cell after the flogging, he touched his back and saw blood on his hands. If that were not true, Mr. Wahid said, the Mubahith could have produced videotape from the camera in Abu Ali’s cell.
“The government wants you to believe that Mr. Abu Ali is some sort of brilliant, Machiavellian-type figure who somehow would foresee what evidence would be produced” against him, Mr. Wahid said.
But prosecutor David Laufman said none of Abu Ali’s behavior was consistent with a man who was tortured. He ad-libbed jokes and pantomimed the use of an assault rifle during a videotape of his confession. He asked a U.S. consular officer about renouncing his U.S. citizenship. Saudi and U.S. officials testified that they saw Abu Ali leaning back in a chair just days after his reputed flogging, even though Abu Ali testified that the pain was so severe he had to sleep on his stomach for two weeks.
“He has every incentive to concoct a story that his confession was coerced, and that’s exactly what he did,” Mr. Laufman said.
Abu Ali is charged in a nine-count indictment with conspiracy to assassinate the president, conspiracy to commit aircraft piracy, providing material support to al Qaeda and other crimes. Prosecutors say he joined al Qaeda while attending college in Saudi Arabia in late 2002 and early 2003.
He was detained in Saudi Arabia until February, when he was brought to the United States to face charges.
Judge Lee could issue his ruling on the confession as early as today.