Two American men previously barred from flights home from North Africa and subjected to extensive questioning were slated to fly back to their home in Portland, Ore. — with their attorney — on Monday, but one of them was notified over the weekend by U.S. officials that he wouldn't be allowed on the flight.
The two Libyan-born men, both U.S. citizens and long-time businessmen in Portland, were barred from earlier efforts to return home and questioned — one by officials in the United Kingdom and the other by FBI agents in Tunis. They are believed to be on the government’s secret no-fly list, but the FBI, which maintains the list, will neither confirm nor deny names on the list as a matter of policy.
After a one-month delay, Jamal Tarhuni — who had been delivering aid to Libyan medical facilities and refugee camps — was allowed to board a flight from Tunis on Monday. He was accompanied by his Portland attorney, Tom Nelson. They plan to transit through Paris and Amsterdam before flying to Portland, arriving on Tuesday morning.
But a second Portland man caught in a parallel security quagmire, Mustafa Elogbi, was told over the weekend that he would not be able to board the flight with Tarhuni and Nelson, who is providing legal assistance to both men.
“The U.S. government — we’re not even sure which agency — has put my family on this horrid emotional rollercoaster ride with no end in sight,” said Elogbi’s wife, Annie Petrossian, speaking from Portland. Petrossian says her husband’s high blood pressure is worsening because he has run out of medication. “Does anyone even care?”
Elogbi’s family and attorneys said the U.S. Embassy consul in Tunis, Michael Sweeney, had previously told them to go ahead with booking the Monday flight.
On Saturday, two days before travel, Elogbi received another missive from Sweeney saying: “The Embassy has been informed” that Elogbi must make alternative travel plans “no earlier than 24 hours after your original departure times” and according to a set of conditions that include notifying the embassy of the itinerary.
Elogbi had been in Libya to see relatives and visit Libyan refugees in the aftermath of the revolution that ousted long-time dictator Moammar Gadhafi. He tried to return home to Portland on Jan. 8, but was detained during a layover in London--at the behest of U.S. authorities, British officials told him. Elogbi was questioned at length and held in solitary confinement for two days before being sent back to Tunis, his point of departure.
Elogbi is now slated to fly home Feb. 19. His attorney will return to Tunis to accompany him.
“The United States government is acting outrageously,” said Nelson, in a written message sent from Tunis. “These actions expose the government's use of the no-fly list not as a counter-terrorism tool but, rather, as a tool to coerce, intimidate, humiliate, oppress, and punish innocent members of the Muslim community in Portland.”
The FBI office in Portland, which has an agent involved in this case, could not respond to reporter queries about the case -- whether there is a case against the men, whether there would be questioning after they returned, and whether they are on the no-fly list going forward.
"The U.S. Privacy Act, as well as a variety of other federal laws and guidelines, prevent the FBI from speaking directly to your questions," wrote Beth Ann Steele, media relations spokewoman at the field office. "We are not allowed to speak to whether we have an investigation open in any particular instance, nor are we permitted to speak about any particular person. These protections are in place to ensure that every American’s rights to privacy are guarded."
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