Man detained by FBI in East Africa seeks ability to sue

Amir Meshal
Amir Meshal filled out a U.S. passport application at Ethiopian National Intelligence and Security Service Headquarters, in this April 4, 2007, file photo in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Lawyers for a Twin Cities man who was interrogated for four months by FBI agents in East Africa argued in federal court Friday that their client should be allowed to sue the agents for violating his constitutional rights.

Amir Meshal, 32, now a resident of Eden Prairie, went to Somalia in late 2006 to study Islam at a time when an Islamist group had consolidated control there.

In recent years, he has been a controversial figure in Minnesota's Somali-American community, where local mosque leaders have banned him from appearing, fearful that he would influence young men to radicalize.

But in early 2007, Meshal was in Somalia. When fighting broke out in Mogadishu, he fled to the Somalia-Kenya border. There, he was apprehended in a joint U.S.-Kenyan counterterrorism operation and taken into Kenyan custody. He was later transferred back to Somalia and then to Ethiopia.

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Court documents show FBI agents interrogated Meshal for four months. In a legal brief, Meshal's lawyers said the agents, "detained Mr. Meshal in secret, denied him access to a lawyer, a court, and family members, threatened him with torture and death, and rendered him between three countries without legal process."

The agents told Meshal that he wouldn't be allowed to return to the United States until he confessed to being an al Qaeda operative, the documents said.

After four months in detention without confessing, federal authorities released Meshal, who was never charged with a crime.

Meshal sued several of the FBI agents who interrogated him. The case was dismissed in a lower court because the judge determined that existing legal precedents do not provide remedies for U.S. citizens to sue based on claims of mistreatment by the U.S. government in matters of national security.

Jonathan Hafetz, Meshal's lawyer and a cooperating attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, told a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals, D.C. Circuit, that if Meshal is not allowed to sue, "it will create the perverse result that law enforcement can violate the 4th Amendment rights of U.S. citizens overseas" even though those same actions would be illegal at home.

The government argues that those rights apply differently in the course of active counterterrorism investigations that might involve disclosing sensitive intelligence and diplomatic communications with foreign governments.

Appellate Judge Brett Kavanaugh called the government's arguments, "troubling" and worried that the FBI and CIA could use them to detain U.S. citizens overseas "forever." A decision is not expected for several months.

Since returning to the United States, Meshal has been under a different kind of scrutiny.

Last June, leaders of the Bloomington mosque, Al-Farooq, banned Meshal from its premises after learning he was expressing what they considered radical views.

Somali-Americans say Meshal created a study group of about 25 boys that he used to take each week to his home, where he had ample opportunity to influence the young men.

Meshal was later expelled from a second mosque in nearby Eden Prairie after he voiced his disagreement with an imam's lecture distancing Islam from radical groups like ISIS.