New York Times
February 25, 2005
WASHINGTON, Feb. 24 - The parents of Ahmed Omar Abu Ali, the American student accused of plotting the assassination of President Bush, said Thursday that the government was restricting their access to their son by limiting what they could tell the public about their jailhouse conversations.
But Justice Department officials said the jailhouse restrictions under consideration were standard in terrorism cases as a way of preventing jailed suspects from passing coded messages to outside accomplices.
Prosecutors have imposed tight restrictions on about a dozen terrorism defendants since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, officials said, including Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, a prisoner whose lawyer, Lynne F. Stewart, was convicted two weeks ago of smuggling messages out of jail.
The family of Mr. Abu Ali, who was held without charges for 20 months in Saudi Arabia before United States officials returned him to Virginia on Monday to face charges of providing support to terrorists, said the government asked one of their lawyers to agree to a set of tight conditions before family members could visit him in custody in Alexandria.
Family members said they were told that to see Mr. Abu Ali they would have to agree not to discuss anything he told them with the news media, to have an F.B.I. agent present for the meeting and to speak only in English.
The family characterized the restrictions as an unfair effort by the Justice Department to silence them. Relatives have complained in the news media in recent months about Mr. Abu Ali's prolonged confinement and possible torture in Saudi Arabia.
"I will not sign any papers," Omar Abu Ali, the suspect's father, said Thursday after a court hearing in a lawsuit the family has brought against the United States government. "They're not allowing us to see him - we haven't seen him for three years, we fought this long to get him back, and we deserve to see him."
Justice Department officials said relatives would be free to see Mr. Abu Ali if they agreed to the restrictions.
"The family has access to the defendant that is consistent with standard procedures in a case that involves national security concerns," said Bryan Sierra, a spokesman for the Justice Department.
A department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because no agreement has been reached, confirmed the general outline of the jailhouse restrictions the family cited, including a ban on making any comments to reporters about what Mr. Abu Ali tells them. But the official said the department had reached no final decision on what restrictions would be imposed.
"If the family says he told them, 'The sky is clear, but it may rain tomorrow,' that could be a message to terrorists," the official said. "They can go out and talk to the media about their son, his innocence, whatever they want, but they have to agree not to convey anything directly from him that could be construed as a message."
The official said the department was concerned that even if relatives were not aware they were conveying a coded message, their doing so could help put a plot into effect.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, Attorney General John Ashcroft broadened restrictions for those in custody in terror cases. The "special administrative measures" gave the Justice Department the power to monitor lawyer-client conversations as long as the lawyer was notified in advance.
Lawyers for Mr. Abu Ali have been allowed to see him since he was returned to the United States on Monday, but officials said their conversations have not been monitored, and unlike some other defendants in terrorism cases, Mr. Abu Ali was not shackled or confined at the meetings.
Defense lawyers said Mr. Abu Ali showed them marks on his back that appeared to be from whippings.
Relatives said Thursday that while Mr. Abu Ali was in custody in Saudi Arabia he told them that his jailers in Riyadh had sometimes whipped him for three straight days, kept him in solitary confinement for months, blindfolded him and denied him food. The family maintains as part of its lawsuit that American officials were aware of the abuses and effectively orchestrated his detention with the cooperation of the Saudis.
But the Justice Department, in a filing on Wednesday, denied accusations of torture. Prosecutors said Mr. Abu Ali had told United States officials that he had been "well treated" in Saudi custody and that an American doctor who examined him after he was transferred to United States custody found no evidence of physical mistreatment. The Justice Department said the evidence indicated "that the defendant's claims of mistreatment are an utter fabrication intended to divert attention from his criminal involvement with an Al Qaeda cell in Saudi Arabia."
In a six-count indictment unsealed on Tuesday, prosecutors charged that Mr. Abu Ali provided material support and resources to terrorists, including technical materials and training, while he was studying in Saudi Arabia in 2002 and 2003. While he is not charged directly with trying to assassinate the president, the indictment says his support of Al Qaeda was "to be used in preparation for, and carrying out, the assassination of the president of the United States."
Prosecutors charged that Mr. Abu Ali and a Saudi associate linked to Al Qaeda who has since been killed had talked about ways of having Mr. Abu Ali shoot Mr. Bush or detonate a bomb near him. Mr. Abu Ali's father said Thursday that he considered the charges "all lies."