Did Ashcroft "Behead" an Innocent Man
While the major media screams about the latest beheading in the Middle East, John Ashcroft's destruction of a man in the middle west -- likely for political purposes -- has gone unnoticed. The ghastly court appearance here in Columbus, Ohio, of Nuradin Abdi has underscored the high likelihood that the Bush Administration used variations of torture to break this impoverished Somali immigrant. And his dubious indictment may well have been used to overshadow a campaign visit here by John Kerry. No Republican has ever won the White House without carrying Ohio.
On Monday, June 14, the eve of Kerry's two-day visit here, Attorney-General Ashcroft dramatically seized national headlines by unsealing a month-old four-count indictment of Abdi, a Somali native living in Columbus. "The American heartland was targeted for death and destruction by an al-Qaeda cell allegedly which included a Somali immigrant who will now face justice," Ashcroft boasted.
Ashcroft failed to point out that Abdi had been in custody since November 28, 2003. Federal investigators claim Abdi allegedly bragged that he wanted to blow up a mall. But according to CBSNEWS.com, "no specific mall was targeted. No explosives were in hand. And it was unclear that the alleged terrorist had the wherewithal to do it."
Abdi faces up to 80 years in prison and $1 million in fines. According to U.S. immigration records, Abdi first entered the United States in 1995, resided in Canada, then re-entered the U.S. in August 1997. Official statements say the US granted Abdi asylum as a refugee in January 1999 after Abdi gave false information to immigration officials. His November 2003 arrest was on immigration charges. He has been held in prison under extremely dubious circumstances.
He was not formally charged with terrorism. His family could not see him and heard little from him. He had no legal representation.
Last week Ashcroft charged Abdi with plotting to blow up an unnamed shopping mall in central Ohio. The super-hyped "findings" immediately followed embarrassing new revelations about the administration's use of torture, and came just before John Kerry's campaign appearance in the capitol of this crucial swing state. Kerry raised a record $2 million in his two days here.
Ashcroft says that while in prison Nuradin Abdi claimed to have gone to Mecca on a pilgrimage but instead went to Ethiopia for terrorist training. In a BBC interview, Abdi's brother, Abdiaziz, said "Nuradin has not been to Ethiopia. He hasn't been to Mecca, either."
Federal Magistrate Mark Abel ordered Abdi transferred to a federal psychiatric facility to determine if he is mentally competent. The evidence used to determine Magistrate Abel's decision remains sealed.
Here's how ABC's Peter Jennings described the public announcement of Abdi's indictment: "In Washington today, the Attorney General said that al-Qaeda has been planning to blow up a shopping mall in Ohio. John Ashcroft went before the cameras to say that a man from Somalia, currently in U.S. custody, is at the heart of this plan. Over the last three years Mr. Ashcroft has made several dramatic announcements about terrorist plots in the U.S. and it's hard to verify them because the evidence is held in such secrecy."
In court, Abdi looked nothing like a terrorist -- or his former self. His family and the larger Somali community here were horrified to see Abdi enter the courtroom smiling vacantly and failing to recognize his own brother. Apparently unconscious of his surroundings, Abdi banged his head repeatedly on a table and grinned at nothing. Many who know Abdi in the central Ohio community say the vague, sensational charges against him are absurdly out of character.
No photos have emerged of abuse in prison. But Abdi's new attorney, his family and the community who knew him find little else to conclude. Some say he has apparently lost his mind under the conditions of his incarceration.
The four-count indictment returned by a federal grand jury in Columbus centers around charges that Abdi conspired with Lyman Faris and others to blow up an unidentified shopping mall. Faris is serving 20 years in prison for allegedly planning (but taking no actual action) to sabotage the Brooklyn Bridge.
Faris's family says he's had a long-standing struggle with mental difficulties. Faris was held in prison for several months before suddenly being fingered as a high-profile terrorist. The Bush Administration says Faris visited the Brooklyn Bridge and tried to buy equipment to aid an alleged al-Qaeda attack.
Faris and Abdi attended the same mosque in Columbus. Home to more than 30,000 Somalis, this is the second-largest Somali community in the US after Minneapolis.
The Somali community here has met en masse about the Abdi indictment. It has been quick to point out the mistake the government made in the November 8, 2001 world headlines touting a Bush crackdown on financial networks allegedly tied to Osama bin Laden . Among those arrested in a much-hyped Columbus raid was Somali businessman Hassan Hussein, owner of Barakaat Enterprise Inc., a financial transfer business. At the end of August 2002, the U.S. Treasury Department quietly removed Hussein and two other Somali individuals from its list of alleged supporters of terrorism and dropped all charges against them.
Hussein's lawyer, Kevin O'Brien, told reporters after the charges were dropped that "I wish the government would just come out and say, 'We screwed up' and apologize. For ten months we asked them to produce proof, and not once did they produce a shred of information."
Somali expert Ted Dagne of the Congressional Research Service in Washington, D.C. called the government's decision to close down Barakaat "a major blunder" based on "junk intelligence." The BBC reported that 60% of all Somalians use Barakaat Financial Services to send money back home.
Local attitudes toward the arrests abound with skepticism. One June 19 caller to a local talk show charged Ashcroft with targeting unstable Somali men to whip up fear and tension in the heartland. "I think that the Somalian community are just easy fodder for Mr. Ashcroft," he said. "They are black. That makes it very easy. They are powerless as well. I also think that it had something to do with Kerry's Columbus appearance Tuesday. It induces fear and panic reminding us of course that Bush is in control. It put Kerry's visit on the back burner."
Abdi and Faris might ultimately prove to be terrorists. But so far they seem just hapless patsies, their minds and spirits broken in a Bush-Ashcroft gulag more reminiscent of Stalin's Soviet Union and Saddam's Al Ghraib than a nation governed by the rule of law.
The real source of terror here may be that this is precisely the kind of treatment in store for countless innocent Americans or foreign-born bystanders. The badge of terrorism can always be pinned on defenseless, marginalized people broken in the horrors of a prison system unconstrained by the Geneva Convention or the Bill of Rights.
Give Bush another four years, and it could happen to you.
and Bob Fitrakis are co-authors of
George W. Bush Vs. the Superpower of Peace
(Free Press, 2003).
Harvey Wasserman's History of the US is available at
www.harveywasserman.com/. Bob Fitrakis's new book is
The Brothers Voinovich & The Ohiogate Scandal. They are the editors of
The Free Press,
where this article first appeared.