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US files charges against American who alleged torture

Claudio Bresciani / AP

U.S. citizen Yonas Fikre, left, talks to media with his attorney, Thomas Nelson, in Stockholm, Sweden, April 18, 2012. Fikre said he was detained and tortured in the United Arab Emirates at the behest of the U.S. government. Fikre, who is on the U.S. no-fly list, is seeking asylum in Sweden.

The U.S. government has issued an arrest warrant for an American citizen who is seeking asylum in Sweden after he went public with allegations of illegal detention and torture while in the United Arab Emirates – which he believes was carried out at the behest of the FBI.

In newly filed documents, the U.S. government charges that Yonas Fikre, 33, an Ethiopia-born resident of Portland, Ore., was involved in money transfers set up to avoid U.S. reporting requirements. He is accused of conspiring with two other defendants — his brother Dawit Woldehawariat of San Diego and Abrehaile Haile of Seattle.

"Defendants Fikre and Woldehawariat wanted to conceal from the United States their connection to the money transfers" of about $75,000, the grand jury indictment states.

The accusation against the three is "structuring" — or using a series of bank transactions instead of conducting a larger transaction in an effort to avoid reporting the money movements to the federal government. Transactions over $10,000 require reporting.

After Fikre traveled to Sudan in 2009, and later to the UAE, he received money transfers that he says were for starting a trading business. The document alleges that a series of $7,000 money transfers from his brother, and handled by Abrehaile Haile — who operates Red Sea Inc., a money-transmitting business in Seattle — amounted to conspiracy to structure.  

Fikre's brother, a taxi driver, also was  charged with failing to file taxes for 2009 and 2010. He made about $26,000 in 2009 and $29,000 in 2010, the document states.

No terrorism charges are included in the documents. 

"Frankly, I think its retaliation and retribution," Fikre’s attorney, Thomas Nelson in Portland, said of the indictment.

Nelson said that FBI agents questioned Fikre when they met with him in Sudan in April 2010 shortly after the transfers. 

The indictment  filed at the U.S. District Court in the Southern District of California were dated May 1.

Two weeks ago, Fikre went public with his story of alleged mistreatment by the FBI, and claims that he was detained and tortured in the UAE at the behest of the U.S. government.

The FBI will not comment on individual investigations, citing security and Privacy Act concerns, nor address the allegations that it orchestrated torture.

Fikre said that when he was detained in UAE, he was not accused of a crime. He was released without charge.

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Nelson said that the FBI agents used the accusation of "structuring" to pressure Fikre to become an informant in a case they were pursuing at a meeting with him in Khartoum in April 2010.

Fikre said the agents also suggested they could help him get off the U.S. "no-fly" list if he aided their investigation — a surprise, Fikre said, because it was the first he had learned that his name was on the list of "known and reasonably suspected terrorists."

The no-fly list is maintained by the Terrorism Screening Center within the FBI. The center will neither confirm nor deny any individual is on the list. Typically, individuals do not discover they are on the list until they are refused boarding.

Fikre said he refused to become an FBI informant.

After the FBI encounter, Fikre moved his business to the United Arab Emirates where he was detained and, he says, tortured for 101 days. He said the questioning about his finances continued, along with questions about people, beliefs and finances of his mosque back in Portland. Fikre says he was blindfolded, so he could not see his interrogators, but the questions were so similar to those of the FBI months earlier that he believes the questioning, accompanied by sleep deprivation, exposure to cold, stress positions and beatings, was done on behalf of the FBI.

He is now in Stockholm where his appeal  for asylum is under review by the Swedish government.

Fikre, a naturalized American citizen, came to the United States as a refugee in 1991, after his family fled civil war in Ethiopia. Now that he is on the no-fly list, he is barred from boarding any flight that enters U.S. air space.

Nelson is concerned that the indictment might make his client essentially stateless.

"Yonas tried to come back to the United States and couldn’t get in, so he went to Sweden," said Nelson. "The (Swedish) government might now claim he’s a fugitive and won’t let him in."

Fikre’s immigration lawyer could not be immediately contacted for comment.

The prosecution argues that Fikre's brother, Woldehawaria, 31, is a flight risk, so he is being held without bail.

Gadeir Abbas, a staff attorney for the Council on American Islamic Relations, a nonprofit that represents Muslims in civil rights cases and advocates for American Muslim rights more broadly, said he thinks the indictment signals a warning to the population.

"It sends the message to the community and people on the no-fly list that there will be retaliation," he said. 

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