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American seeks political asylum in Sweden, alleging torture, FBI coercion

Martin Von Krogh / for msnbc.com

American citizen Yonas Fikre has spent the past seven months in Stockholm, Sweden, where he is seeking asylum.

An American citizen who alleges that he was detained and tortured overseas at the behest of the U.S. government — and is now marooned as a result of the U.S. no-fly list — has filed for political asylum in Sweden, he announced with his lawyers on Wednesday.

Yonas Fikre, 33, says he spent more than three months in a Dubai detention center in 2011. In a lengthy Skype interview with msnbc.com, he described sleeping on the concrete floor of a frigid jail cell, and enduring regular interrogation, beatings and stress positions that caused him to collapse or black out.

He was released in September, he says, but is just now going public with his story.


Fikre’s ordeal took place outside the United States — far from his home in Portland, Ore. — but he and his American lawyer say they believe it was orchestrated by the FBI in connection with an investigation in Portland. And they maintain that Fikre’s inclusion on the no-fly list — which bars him from boarding U.S.-bound flights — has been used as a tool to coerce information, not because he presents a risk to U.S. flights.

"There is a practice and policy by the FBI to gratuitously deny the rights of American Muslims, particularly naturalized immigrant Muslims when they want to get more information," said Thomas Nelson, a Portland attorney representing Fikre. "In the case of Mr. Fikre …  we believe and will allege that they also engaged in torture by proxy. This is shocking. This is a dark day for America."

Limited scope of no-fly list
The government, citing security reasons, will not say why any individual is on the no-fly list or even confirm that they are included. However, the names are rigorously screened and regularly reviewed, according to a spokesman at the Terrorist Screening Center, a division of the FBI that maintains watch lists.

The Department of Justice reviewed Fikre’s case in response to a complaint from Nelson on behalf of Fikre and two others clients on the no-fly list, and said that it did not find cause for action.

"Based on our review, we have concluded that no action by this Office is warranted," said a letter from the department’s Office of Professional Responsibility dated March 28. “We are referring your correspondence to the FBI’s inspection division for whatever action it deems appropriate."

In this Skype interview with msnbc.com reporter Kari Huus, Yonus Fikre describes the mental abuses and lack of medical attention he says he experienced while detained for over three months in Dubai.  He spoke from Stockholm, Sweden, where he has applied for political asylum.

Security experts say the intent of the no-fly list is quite limited — to protect U.S. aviation from attack.

"Its principal purpose is to keep certain people who have been identified off of U.S. airlines. …  It doesn’t involve arresting people," said Brian Michael Jenkins, senior adviser to the president of the Rand Corp., a security think tank, and former member of the White House commission on aviation safety and security. "It is not a fugitive list."

He said it would not be surprising if law enforcers used getting off the no-fly list as an inducement for recruiting informants, but it would be considered an abuse if they were included on the list in order to pressure them.

The FBI office in Portland said it could not discuss specifics of the case, due to protections provided to Americans by the U.S. Privacy Act.

"I can tell you that the FBI trains its agents very specifically and very thoroughly about what is acceptable under U.S. law," said Beth Anne Steele, spokeswoman for the FBI Portland field office. "To do anything counter to that training is counterproductive — we risk legal liability and potentially losing a criminal case in court."

The problem for Fikre and others is that there is no way to dispute the information that put them on the list in the first place.

Nelson says Fikre’s ordeal fits a pattern among Muslim Americans, including several clients, who discover they are on the no-fly list while they are out of the United States — and are then  asked to submit to questioning, with no access to legal counsel, in return for their travel rights.

Related reporting from msnbc.com

Far-flung FBI encounter
In April 2010 Fikre was in Sudan, where he arrived several months earlier to set up a trading company. He was summoned to the U.S. Embassy in Khartoum, he says, ostensibly to attend a luncheon with other Americans to be briefed on security amid election-related turmoil in the country. But when he arrived Fikre was instead met with a grilling by two men who identified themselves as FBI agents from Portland, according to his account.

In a session lasting three to four hours, Fikre says, the two men questioned him about people and activities at As-Saber Mosque,  where he prays back in Portland. They asked about the imam and people who attend the mosque, the content of sermons and meetings and even details about the layout of the building.

Fikre says they made it clear that they wanted him to go back to Portland as an FBI informant in an unspecified investigation.

Fikre says  that when he told the men he didn’t want to work for the FBI, they countered by asking, "Don't you love your family? Don't you want to make real money?"  They also indicated that if he worked for them, they could help him get off of the "no fly" list — which he says was a surprise because this meeting was the first he had heard that his name was on the no-fly list.

The details of this conversation could not be verified. However, Fikre has an email that he says came from one of the men, David Noordeloos, after Fikre refused a second meeting: "Thanks for meeting with us last week in Sudan,” it says. “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." Fikre said he considered this communication a threat.

Fikre says he chose Sudan as a business destination because his family had lived there when he was a child, after fleeing civil war in Eritrea. In 1991 his immediate family immigrated to the United States and later became citizens, but he still has relatives in Sudan. He says the agents told him couldn’t do business in Sudan due to U.S. sanctions, so he made his way to the United Arab Emirates, where he had a friend, and started over.

Lost to the world
But on June 1, 2011, in Abu Dhabi, Fikre was arrested by non-uniformed secret police, blindfolded and taken to a secret state security prison with no explanation, according to Fikre’s account.

Day after day under detention in the UAE city, he said, he was interrogated about events and people in Portland, especially those in the As-Saber mosque and its imam — answering many of the very same questions posed by the FBI agents a year earlier, he says, but in even greater detail.

He says  that in a particularly brutal session, the prison interrogators prodded him to talk about a new case that was unfolding in Portland — that of Mohamed Osman Mohamud, 19, who had been arrested in late 2010 by the Portland FBI in a sting operation for an attempted bombing at a crowded Christmas tree lighting ceremony.  

Fikre  says he told his questioners he didn’t know Mohamud but recognized the younger man in news reports as a member of As-Saber Mosque. He says he knew nothing of Mohamud’s ideology or plans.

For about 10 weeks, Fikre says, he felt he was lost to the world.

He was in held in solitary confinement in a frigid cell without bedding, he says, subjected to bright lights, stress positions, sleep deprivation and beatings around his head, chest, soles of his feet and hands, and threatened with strangulation.

Fikre's captors urged him to work for the FBI and told him that if he agreed to do so he would be freed, according to his account. When Fikre suggested that the UAE interrogators were working for the FBI, they beat him more severely, he says.

Consular visit
Three weeks after Fikre went missing, Nelson, the Portland attorney, launched a search on behalf of worried relatives, contacting officials in the UAE and the U.S. State Department. On July 27, the U.S. Embassy located Fikre and said he was being detained by the UAE State Security Department, email records show.

The next day, a U.S. Embassy staffer was allowed to meet with Fikre.

But Fikre says that the UAE prison officials who also attended the meeting had warned him in advance not to discuss his poor treatment or face further punishment. They also promised that if he cooperated, he would be released within days.

During the meeting Fikre says he tried to subtly signal that he was in trouble, according to his account. But he says the U.S. representative, a woman named Marwa, did not appear to pick up on those signals.

"Mr. Fikre was reported to be in good spirits and did not report any issues of maltreatment," according to an email message from a communications officer at the U.S. Embassy in Abu Dhabi to the office of Rep. Earl Blumenauer, an Oregon congressman who had aided Nelson’s inquiries about the case.  The message, obtained by msnbc.com noted that the embassy understood Fikre was not charged with any crime and should be released soon.

Fikre’s incarceration, questioning and abuse continued for nearly seven weeks after that meeting, he says. There were no more visits from the consulate.

He was finally released on Sept. 14, and — because he could not board a flight to the United States – he went to Sweden, where he is staying with a relative while Swedish officials review his request  for asylum.

"I used to take great pride in being an American," Fikre said. "I believed that I have a very powerful country that will take care of me no matter where I am. … (Now) I feel like a second-class citizen or not even a citizen. I didn’t get any help from my government."

Fikre and Nelson say they believe the Sudan meeting and the detention were arranged by the FBI to bolster its investigation and prosecution of Mohamud, the would-be Christmas tree bomber.

How names get put on the no-fly list

The FBI had been tracking Mohamud since he was about 16, because of email communications that officials say expressed his desire to pursue violent jihad, according to an affidavit for his arrest.

Sting operation
An undercover FBI agent first made contact with Mohamud in June 2010 in the sting operation that led to his arrest in November.

On Nov. 26, 2010, apparently believing he had connected with Islamic extremists, Mohamud allegedly drove a car he believed contained explosives to a Christmas tree lighting ceremony in Portland and then attempted to detonate it with a cellphone. The explosives and the detonator were fakes supplied by the FBI, which then swept in and arrested him.

Mohamud's trial, scheduled to begin in October, is expected to be a battle over entrapment — whether the sting operation averted a deadly attack or provoked action on the part of a disillusioned young man.

Fikre is one of several Portland Muslims —all of whom sometimes pray at As-Saber Mosque –  stranded overseas in recent months by the no-fly list. Jamal Tarhuni, 55, and Mustafa Elogbi, 60, both longtime U.S. citizens, were able to return home from trips to Libya only with the intervention of lawyers. They too say they were pursued by Portland FBI agents for questioning while in North Africa.

The men were reunited with their families in Portland but remain on the no-fly list. In Tarhuni’s case, the designation means he cannot complete aid projects he was working on in Libya with the nonprofit Medical Teams International, and he takes trains to meetings across the country.

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These men, and others named on the no-fly list must be "considered a threat to aircraft, or be operationally capable of carrying out a terrorist attack, and using air travel to get somewhere for the purpose of conducting a terrorist attack, or be a threat to U.S. installations or troops worldwide," said the spokesman for the Terrorist Screening Center.

Tarhuni, Elogbi and Fikre are likely to file a lawsuit against the Department of Justice to challenge that claim and recover their travel rights, said Nelson.

But Fikre, unlike the other two, is not eager to return to the United States. He said that whatever action he takes will be from the relative security of Sweden, which he hopes will grant him a permanent haven.

"The most important thing for me is to find out why they did to me what they did, Fikri said, speaking from a relative’s home in Sweden. “It’s always in the back of your mind, you know, you wonder why this happened to me.  And if you get the answer to that question, you could move on, you know.  But something like this happened to you, you always are going to wonder — I wonder why this happened and who was really involved, who was really running the show behind the scenes."

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