Abu Ali Terrorism Trial Winds Up

Attorneys give closing arguments in the case of U.S.-born Ahmed Omar Abu Ali, who has confessed to being a member of al Qaeda and plotting to kill President Bush. While a student in Saudi Arabia, his parents say, Abu Ali was arrested and beaten by Saudi authorities at the behest of the United States, which U.S. officials deny.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

A jury in Alexandria, Virginia, is now deciding the fate of a 24-year-old American accused of being a terrorist. Ahmed Amar Abu Ali confessed to being an al-Qaeda member after Saudi officials arrested him in 2003. Among the charges against him: conspiring to kill President Bush. Abu Ali says the charge comes from a false confession that was tortured out of him. NPR's Ari Shapiro has been following the case and joins us now from the courthouse.

Ari, tell us about how Abu Ali got from the US to a Saudi prison.

ARI SHAPIRO reporting:

Well, he was born in Texas to a Jordanian father and raised in Virginia. He went to Saudi Arabia to study Islam at an Islamic university in Medina, and that's where he was arrested, while he was taking his final exams there. He was held in a Saudi prison for almost two years, and his family claims that he was held there at the behest of the US. That's something American authorities deny. Abu Ali says he was whipped and beaten while in prison, and he says that's the only reason he confessed to being a terrorist.

NORRIS: Have Abu Ali's attorneys been able to prove that he was tortured?

SHAPIRO: Well, they've sure been trying. The whole case has focused on whether or not the defendant was tortured. The government says he was not. They've called government doctors who've testified that there are no visible scars that would indicate torture. FBI agents, who saw Abu Ali in custody in Saudi Arabia, have testified. They said he didn't look like he was in pain when they saw him. And member of the Mabaheh(ph), the Saudi security force, have testified by video from Saudi Arabia, and they said that they didn't mistreat Abu Ali when he was in custody. But defense lawyers have also brought out their own doctors, and they've diagnosed Abu Ali as having symptoms of torture, both physical and psychological.

NORRIS: You said no visible scars. If he was whipped, wouldn't there be marks?

SHAPIRO: Yes. And everyone agrees there are marks of some sort; they just don't agree on how many there are or on whether they were caused by torture. The jury has seen close-up photos of Abu Ali's back, and there are clearly at least four visible lines running vertically down his upper back. Government doctors say there are only four lines, and they say the marks could have been caused by acne, fingernail scratches or even rubbing up against a sharp object. Defense lawyers have called doctors to say, `No, there are at least 10 lines on his back, and these are the marks of torture.'

NORRIS: So there's some contention about this. But, Ari, didn't some of these details come out at a pretrial hearing?

SHAPIRO: Yes. That took place earlier this fall. The defense called a pretrial hearing because they wanted the case thrown out over the allegations of torture. And the judge in that case did not find the defense's case convincing, so he let the trial go forward. Now in that pretrial hearing, Abu Ali took the stand in his own defense. Perhaps in part because he lost that hearing, he did not take the stand at this trial.

NORRIS: But the jury did see video of Abu Ali reading his confession during this trial. What did he say in that video?

SHAPIRO: It was really quite chilling. He spoke quickly. He seemed almost jittery or giddy. He talked about training in Saudi Arabia with al-Qaeda members. He described learning weapons skills and explosives techniques. At one point he made a gesture of racking an AK-47 weapon, and he smiled when he did it. He described possible terrorist plots, including one that was assassinating President Bush; another option was flying airplanes into American buildings; a third was coming back to the United States, marrying an American woman and carrying out some future plot, perhaps decades from now. He said he was motivated to join al-Qaeda, in part, because of US support for Israel. His lawyers say that the statement in this video is purely the words of the Mabaheh, the Saudi security force, and that it's not true at all.

NORRIS: Ari, what happens next?

SHAPIRO: The jury has heard closing statements from both sides, so they begin deliberating tomorrow morning. And if Abu Ali is convicted on all nine counts, he could be sentenced to life in prison.

NORRIS: NPR's Ari Shapiro joining us from Alexandria, Virginia.

Ari, thanks so much.

SHAPIRO: You're welcome.

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