Yonas Fikre, a 33-year-old American Muslim, is currently in Sweden awaiting word on his application for political asylum after having been imprisoned in the United Arab Emirates where he claims he was tortured for 106 days at the request of American government agents.
“He told me to lie down on the floor and he started beating the soles of my feet,” he said in a video clip published on the YouTube channel of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), an advocacy group for American Muslims which has supported Fikre throughout his ordeal.
“This guy looked at me and said, ‘Look, your government doesn’t care about you. You’re in our hands now. You do what we tell you to do and you’ll get out of here as soon as possible. Otherwise you’re going to sit here for years and years to come and your government will never, ever find you.'”
Fikre’s problems first started back in 2009 while he was visiting Sudan and stem from his association with a mosque in Portland, Oregon in the western United States.
While he was in Sudan, Fikre, a naturalized US citizen from Eritrea who converted to Islam in 2003, was “harassed” by FBI agents from Portland looking for information about Portland’s Masjid as-Sabr mosque.
According to Fikre’s Swedish lawyer Hans Bredberg, the agents thought Fikre could help them learn more about the mosque, where Mohamed Osman Mohamud, a Somali American charged with plotting the “Christmas tree bomb” attempt in 2010, had once worshiped.
“He refused to cooperate so they started harassing him,” Bredberg told The Local.
“I think these agents were sort of working on their own initiative, that it wasn’t officially sanctioned, but the FBI isn’t saying anything.”
Suddenly, Fikre found himself on the FBI’s “no-fly” list and unable to fly to the United States.
He then travelled to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), but the harassment continued, and on June 1st, 2011, Fikre was arrested and imprisoned, not to be released for another three months.
He claims to have been tortured for 106 days, in what he described to the AP news agency as the most isolating experience of his life.
In addition to having his bare feet beaten, Fikre claims to have been kicked and punched and sprayed with a fire hose.
“It wasn’t actual FBI agents who tortured him, they were private contractors,” said Bredberg, adding that the prison where his client was held was “a few hundred metres” from the US embassy.
When officials from the US embassy came to visit, Fikre was threatened by his interrogators that “all hell would break loose” if he hinted that he was being mistreated and was subsequently held even longer.
“This is a disturbing case. It fits a pattern of what we call proxy detention, where the American government has a US citizen detained and tortured overseas for information,” CAIR spokesperson Ibrahim Hooper told The Local, explaining the incident isn’t the first time an American Muslim has been detained and tortured in such circumstances.
“They do things to their prisoners that are illegal in America.”
According to Hooper, when Fikre asked for a legal representation in Sudan he was refused, just as when he asked for a counselor in the UAE.
However, this was not the first time someone with a connection to the Portland mosque has received this kind of treatment from government officials, who Hooper claims are “fixated” on the mosque.
“The situation is ludicrous, think about it. You’ve got an American citizen who’s asked for asylum overseas because he’s too afraid to return to the US,” said Hooper.
“This would be laughable if it wasn’t so tragic.”
Meanwhile, Anna-Pia Beier, a lawyer with the Swedish Refugee Advice Centre (Rådgivningsbyrån för asylsökande och flyktingar), told The Local she wasn’t aware of the case, but said it was “theoretically possible” that Fikre could end up being granted political asylum in Sweden.
“If he can show that he’s being persecuted on religious or political grounds and that the authorities are unable to protect him, he could be granted asylum,” she said, emphasizing, however, that it was hard to assess his chances without knowing the details of the case.
“It’s very unusual for Americans to apply for political asylum here,” she said, an assessment backed up by Fikre’s lawyer who explained that such cases were “extremely rare”.
According to Bredberg, Fikre ended up in Sweden because some distant relatives from Eritrea live here.
“When they finally released him in September, they told him they would fly him to somewhere in Europe and to pick a country and he chose Sweden,” the lawyer explained.
Fikre has been in Sweden since September while his asylum application has been processed, something which has taken exceedingly long, according to Bredberg, because of an unexplained delay by an investigation being carried out by Swedish security service Säpo.
“They’re looking into whether he’s a threat to Swedish national security or not,” he said.
“It’s taken more than two months. It usually goes much faster and I suspect they’ve been in contact with US authorities and I’m not sure what they might say.”
David Landes and Oliver Gee