Yonas Fikre’s five-year voyage away from home began as a simple business trip to Sudan. That business would eventually lead to his alleged torture at the hands of US anti-terrorism officials in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
Fikre, 36-years-old, is now suing the FBI and two of its agents and several other organizations for placing him on the U.S.’s no fly list — a document banning suspected terrorists from boarding commercial flights. Their apparent goal was to force Fikre to become an informant on the mosque he attended back home in Portland, Ore.
When he still refused to cooperate, the officials had him arrested, interrogated and tortured for 106 days, according to the Guardian.
At least nine members of Fikre’s mosque have also been barred from flying by government officials as a way to coerce them into informing.
“The no-fly list is being used to intimidate and coerce people – not for protection, but instead for aggression,” said Portland businessman Jamal Tarhuni, who was blocked from flying back home from a trip to Libya taken with a Christian charity when he refused to cooperate with an FBI agent who pressed him to sign a document waving his constitutional rights.
Fikre was travelling to Khartoum in Sudan, near where he spent the first 13 years of life, to establish an electronics importing business. Not long after arriving in 2010, he visited the US embassy and was told to attend a briefing for US citizens on the security situation. There was no meeting — there was only a small room and two other men.
The Guardian reports:
The agents were David Noordeloos and Jason Dundas, both attached to the Joint Terrorism Task Force at the FBI office in Portland. Fikre was immediately suspicious because of the agents’ duplicity in luring him to the embassy.
Fikre said it swiftly became clear the agents wanted information about his mosque in Portland, Masjed As-Saber.
The mosque is the largest in Oregon and drew the FBI’s attention not long after 9/11. In 2002, four years before Fikre arrived in Portland, seven members of its congregation were charged for attempting to travel to Afghanistan to join the Taliban. Six received prison sentences. A seventh was killed in Afghanistan.
After eventually answering some basic questions, he was freed under the pretense that he return the following day. He called the agent instead and told him he didn’t want to work for them. The agent became very angry. Two weeks later, Fikre received an email from him, which read “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.”
That was the last he heard from the agents. He soon decided Sudan wasn’t the best place to do business, and soon made trips to Sweden and then to the UAE. He was allowed to fly as normally, leading to his belief that the FBI was using the no-fly zone to pressure him, not because he was considered a possible terrorist.
In June 2011, when living in UAE, he was arrested by local police. Fikre quickly concluded US officials had a hand in the arrest.
“I didn’t know what was happening until I was taken away and the next day, that’s when I knew that it was questions related to Portland, Oregon,” he said. “At first I kept on saying, I’m an American. I need my lawyer, I need my embassy. They said to me, the American government don’t care about you. Then they started asking, tell us the story about what’s going on in Portland. The same questions the FBI were asking in Sudan about As-Saber I was being asked in the UAE.”
Months of interrogation, mostly focused on his mosque in Portland, began. When he refused to answer questions, the beatings started. The employed their hands and eventually different water hoses.
“I was sleeping on tiles, very cold tiles. They put on this AC so it was very cold. The body can’t take this cold on top of the beating,” he said. “That’s when I decided to answer their questions.”
After eight weeks of demanding to see someone from the US embassy, he was finally allowed to meet a woman who only identified as Marwa, knowing that any mention of his torture would delay release. He didn’t mention anything, but still he was not released.
“Toward the end of his interrogation [Fikre] inquired of his interrogator whether the FBI had requested that he be detained and interrogated,” said Fikre’s later lawsuit said. “This time, instead of being beaten, the interrogator stated that indeed the FBI had made such a request and that the American and Emerati authorities work closely on a number of such matters.”
Fikre was never removed from the no-fly list, even after he was released from UAE officials without charge. The US government has never acknowledged that he has been tortured, and he was only able to return home via a private jet paid for by friends in Sweden, where he initially sought asylum.