Slate's Jurisprudence: Confessions Under Torture

A federal court ruled that the confession of an alleged al-Qaeda member could be used at trial, despite the suspect's testimony that it was obtained under torture. Noah Adams talks with Slate legal analyst Dahlia Lithwick about the case, in which a U.S. citizen confessed — while in the custody of Saudi Arabian authorities, often criticized for their harsh interrogation techniques — to participating in a plot to kill President George W. Bush.

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NOAH ADAMS, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

Coming up, the World Series heads to Texas, but will the Astros' bullpen deliver? NPR's Tom Goldman says pitching, of course, is the key to a Houston comeback.

First, though, legal news. Jury selection begins today in a trial that might be getting a lot more attention if official Washington were not preoccupied with so many other big stories. It involves an American-born Muslim who confessed to joining al-Qaeda and plotting to assassinate President Bush. But the defendant, Ahmed Omar Abu Ali, claims he was tortured in Saudi Arabia before that confession. A federal judge in Virginia ruled yesterday that the confession can indeed be admitted to the trial. Joining us now to talk about the case is Dahlia Lithwick, legal analyst for the online magazine Slate and for DAY TO DAY.

Dahlia, tell us who Abu Ali is and what is he accused of specifically here?

DAHLIA LITHWICK reporting:

Well, he's a 24-year-old American born in Houston to Jordanian immigrant parents and raised largely in Virginia. He was studying in university in Saudi Arabia when he was arrested allegedly for conspiring to join al-Qaeda and to assassinate the president. Apparently, he talked with al-Qaeda members there about either shooting the president or car bombing him, and there's also some talk of hijacking more planes and crashing them into the US. So he sounds sort of like another version of what we've already sort of seen several times before.

ADAMS: And he's trying to have this confession suppressed in court in this country. What was going on with the alleged torture there?

LITHWICK: Well, one thing we need to be clear on, Noah, is he was held in Saudi Arabian jail for almost two years, so he starts to look a lot like Yaser Esam Hamdi and some of the other American-born, quote, "terrorists" who were held for an awfully long time. We do know that he says he was arrested and the next day was promptly tortured by Saudi Arabian authorities and that he confessed shortly thereafter. The Saudi Arabians, of course, say they didn't torture him; he just, when confronted with the truth, leaked like a sieve and told them everything. One of the strange parts of the confession is that it was videotaped, and in the videotape, not only does he appear quite animated and giddy and, in fact, at some points pantomiming shooting with a rifle, but he goes on to really elaborate about his abhorrence of the US government's support for Israel and how that was what galvanized him to want to become a member of al-Qaeda.

ADAMS: The trial is in Alexandria, Virginia, and the confession is going to be in court. What does that mean for Abu Ali?

LITHWICK: Well, as a practical matter, it means this case goes to trial. I think he was hoping that if the confession were not allowed in, the whole trial would be dismissed. So there's jury selection; we're going to have opening statements; he's going to have a trial. And now what it means for him is that we're going to look at the truth of the confession--in other words, was what he was saying true or was he just making stuff up? And then the second level is, you know, is there a crime in there? I mean, did he, in fact, do something that was criminal? And so that's a sort of string of inquiries that's going to come out now in the trial.

ADAMS: You cover the Supreme Court on a regular basis and always have your eye on cases that could rise to that level. What do you think about this one?

LITHWICK: Certainly, Noah, this looks like a case that would be very interesting to the Supreme Court. There's a lot of novel issues of law that were not raised, for instance, in the case of Yaser Esam Hamdi, who we talked about. He was the American citizen who was held without due process for a long time in this country. The Supreme Court said no. The difference is, of course, that Abu Ali was held for a long time in Saudi Arabia. That's potentially much more problematic because it looks like it's a part of this notion of, quote, "extraordinary rendition." That's the government tendency to sort of shop people out to be questioned, interrogated, maybe tortured elsewhere and turn a blind eye on how that information was extracted. Now when that information is turned around and used in a US criminal prosecution, it becomes extremely problematic for the courts. And so I think there's a very, very good chance that, if this kind of confession is allowed in, it might make its way up to the Supreme Court someday.

ADAMS: Opinion and analysis from Dahlia Lithwick, who covers the courts for the online magazine Slate.

Thank you, Dahlia.

LITHWICK: It's my pleasure, Noah.

ADAMS: More coming up on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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