Yonas Fikre, 33, tells WW that Emirates officials denied him sleep, kept him in a freezing cell, beat him with wooden sticks and plastic pipes, and threatened to kill him if he didn’t cooperate with U.S. agents.
A U.S. citizen, Fikre says his captors repeatedly grilled him with the same questions Portland-based law enforcement agents had asked him a year earlier about his mosque, the Islamic Center of Portland, Masjed As-Saber.
Fikre, living in Sweden, is telling his story now because his lawyer is preparing a lawsuit against the U.S. government and individuals involved in his imprisonment.
The case highlights the lengths federal agents have gone to investigate the Portland mosque and its imam, Sheik Mohamed Kariye.
WW has been unable to corroborate some of Fikre’s story, including his allegations of torture. But U.S. State Department officials did confirm to WW that Fikre was held in a United Arab Emirates prison without charges for 3½ months in 2011.
A State Department spokesman also confirmed to WW that one of the agents who questioned Fikre works for that agency, employed in diplomatic security. Using public records, WW established that the agent is based in the offices of the Portland FBI. The FBI office houses the Joint Terrorism Task Force, which employs individuals from a variety of federal agencies.
FBI spokeswoman Beth Anne Steele declined to talk about the agent or Fikre’s story. Calls to the United Arab Emirates embassy in Washington, D.C., were not returned.
As-Saber has been the focus of a U.S. government inquiry for more than a decade. In 2003, five men who attended the mosque pleaded guilty to conspiracy to levy war against the United States, and a woman was convicted of providing material aid. That same year, Kariye pleaded guilty to Social Security and welfare fraud.
Fikre, a muscular man with a long face, scruffy beard and large, dark eyes, says he is working to regain the 40 pounds he lost while imprisoned, along with a sense of trust and confidence in his American citizenship.
“It breaks my heart that the country I thought would protect me put me in this position and let me down,” Fikre said in a telephone interview.
Fikre’s account comes from WW’s interview; an affidavit written by his attorney, Tom Nelson; public records; and conversations with State Department and FBI officials.
Fikre says he was born in Eritrea and spent his early childhood in Sudan before coming with his family to Southern California as refugees in 1991.
Raised as a Roman Catholic, he says he converted to Islam in 2003 while attending California State University, Los Angeles. Three years later, records show, he lived in Lake Oswego. Fikre says he managed a Cricket wireless phone store.
Fikre says he attended the As-Saber mosque, located in Southwest Portland, because it was the closest to where he lived and worked. He says he has never heard anyone involved with the mosque advocate violence. He says people who attend As-Saber are aware they are under intense scrutiny by the FBI. “Muslims right now are scared,” he says.
Fikre says he traveled to Sudan in 2009 to develop an import business; once there, he says, a U.S. Embassy official in Khartoum encouraged him to stay and focus on consumer electronics.
WW was unable to confirm Fikre’s business in the Middle East or learn about his business partners or associates.
In mid-April 2010, Fikre says officials at the U.S. Embassy invited him to a lunch to hear a security briefing related to local elections. Once there, he says, he was taken into a room and grilled for four hours by two men who Fikre says flashed badges and identified themselves as FBI agents. The agents told Fikre they needed his help on a case involving the As-Saber mosque.
Fikre says they asked detailed questions about As-Saber: What did Kariye talk about in conversations and during sermons? Who attended the mosque? Who raised funds there?
He says agents assured him they didn’t suspect him, but Fikre says he declined to answer questions without a lawyer. After that, he says, one agent told Fikre he was now on the no-fly list and could not return to the U.S.
Fikre says he believes the agents were offering to pay for his cooperation. One agent, he says, asked him, “Don’t you want to make good money?”
He left the embassy shaken. Neighbors later told him Sudanese police had been asking questions about him.
Fikre, who still has family in the Portland area, says an agent visited a member of his family at work. The agent told the family member Fikre had been interviewed in Sudan and that it was in Fikre’s best interest to cooperate.
One agent who interviewed Fikre at the embassy later sent Fikre an email from his State Department account.
“Thanks for meeting with us last week in Sudan,” the email said. “While we hope to get your side of issues we keep hearing about, the choice is yours to make. The time to help yourself is now.”
The employee’s LinkedIn page listed him as an attaché for the State Department with a degree in criminology. A State Department spokesman says the employee works for the agency but declined to say more. The employee’s LinkedIn page was removed after WW asked State Department officials about him.
Using public records, WW was able to confirm that the employee has also worked in Kabul and out of the FBI’s Portland office. This newspaper agreed not to name the agent out of concerns about his security.
Unnerved by the attention, Fikre moved to the United Arab Emirates in September 2010. Nine months later, on June 1, 2011, local police grabbed him at his apartment in Al Ain, handcuffed and blindfolded him and drove him to a prison in the capital, Abu Dhabi, 133 miles away.
According to Fikre, he was placed in a windowless concrete cell. He was interrogated and beaten regularly with sticks and black plastic pipes on his back and the soles of his feet. He also says guards subjected him to sleep deprivation, stress positions and death threats.
Fikre demanded to know why he was being held. He says his captors told him it was because of his link to the As-Saber mosque. At first Fikre refused to an answer any questions. “But the beatings were unbearable,” he said. “I sometimes collapsed.”
Fikre says his interrogators asked him for details about the Portland mosque: what the imam talked about, who attended, even where the restrooms were located. He also says they knew he had declined to become a U.S. government informant. Fikre answered questions about himself but said he had no incriminating information about the mosque.
The State Department confirms that a U.S. Embassy official visited Fikre in prison on July 28, 2011. The official says she saw no evidence of mistreatment.
Guards, he says, had threatened him not to reveal the torture, and two of his captors attended the meeting. Fikre says he was dehydrated, had lost 40 pounds and was almost incoherent from lack of sleep. He says the embassy official inquired if he was being fed regularly and had access to the restroom but never asked if he was being mistreated or hurt.
“It was devastating,” Fikre says. “She was the only person who could help me. It was a green light for them to keep doing the same thing.”
Fikre says the interrogations and beatings continued over the next six weeks. In September 2011, prison officials told him he was being deported. He was never charged with a crime or accused of any wrongdoing.
Prison officials told him he was on the U.S. no-fly list, drove him straight to the airport and put him on a plane to Stockholm, where Fikre has family.
“I was extremely paranoid,” he says. “I felt like I had been out of the world. It was great to see the sun.”
Fikre wants to return home to the U.S. In the meantime, he says he has applied for political asylum in Sweden and remains concerned for his safety.
“I don’t want anyone to go after me,” he says. “Until I met [the agents], I never looked over my shoulder in the United States. Now I have to live like this for the rest of my life.”
Fikre’s family hired Nelson, a Portland lawyer who attends As-Saber and also represented Brandon Mayfield, the Portland lawyer wrongly accused by the FBI in the 2004 Madrid bombing.
Recently, Nelson has represented Muslims associated with As-Saber who have been put on the no-fly list. The no-fly list is intended to stop known or suspected terrorists from flying in American airspace. Two of Nelson’s clients, Jamal Tarhuni and Mustafa Elogbi, were recently stranded in Tunisia but were allowed to fly home in February after public outcry.
Nelson says the FBI has offered to help his clients get off the no-fly list if they answer questions.
In a January email, Portland FBI counsel Jared Garth wrote to Nelson, “If your clients provided full and truthful cooperation, starting with an interview overseas, perhaps the FBI can facilitate a more expeditious mode of travel back to the U.S.”
Fikre says he wants more people to know about the methods U.S. officials are using against American citizens.
“I want to get off the no-fly list,” Fikre says. “I don’t want to be branded. And I want to shed light on this practice for everyone.”
If Fikre’s story is true, it appears to be a twist on the U.S.’s use of “extraordinary renditions,” the practice of transferring captured suspects to countries lacking human rights standards.
In this case, Fikre was allegedly held and tortured in an Arab country and told he couldn’t fly to the U.S. until he cooperated with investigators. Human rights lawyers call the practice “proxy detention” or “rendition lite.”
“Yonas’ case highlights a new trend we think we are seeing from Portland, where third parties are doing what would be illegal or unconstitutional if done by U.S. agents,” says Gadeir Abbas, a lawyer for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “You can’t just deprive someone of their liberty to return home, especially without due process. It isn’t consistent with the concept of citizenship.”
Steele, the FBI spokeswoman, says agents are thoroughly trained about what is acceptable under U.S. law. “Our job is to protect people’s safety and their civil rights,” she says, “and we take both duties very seriously.”