|Lawyers for Sharif Mobley, an American citizen detained in Yemen, say the US government arranged his arrest|
When Sharif Mobley, an American citizen living in Yemen, went to the shops on the morning of January 26 this year, his family had no idea that it was the start of a chain of events that would lead to him being accused of murder and facing potential execution.
As he drank tea on a Sana’a street, eight masked men burst from two white vans and tried to grab him. Terrified, he ran, but was brought crashing to the ground by two bullets to his legs and bundled into one of the vans.
The method of abduction may have been brutal, but it was not the work of a rebel group or criminal gang. Instead, the armed men were Yemeni security agents, and in a set of legal documents seen by Al Jazeera, Mobley’s lawyers allege they were operating on behalf of the US government.
The documents, part of a freedom of information request submitted by Mobley’s legal team to US authorities, paint a disturbing picture of shadowy security cooperation between the US and Yemen in the wake of an alleged attempt by an al-Qaeda group based in the country to blow up an airliner over Detriot in December last year.
In the weeks that followed, Yemen shot up the priority list for US counter-terrorism planners. This year alone, military aid from Washington to Sana’a has reached $155mn, more than 30 times the amount given in 2006, and American special forces are known to be training Yemeni troops to fight armed groups.
Mobley’s story, his lawyers say, is an example of a more disturbing development in the relationship between the US and Yemen; the proxy detention of an American citizen by the Yemeni government, arranged and overseen by US agents in the country.
According to the lawyers, several weeks before his arrest, Mobley decided to leave Yemen. He had been enrolled in a language school in the country, but his wife had recently given birth to a baby boy, and with the security situation deteriorating in the wake of the failed Detroit attack, the family decided to return to the US.
To obtain travel documentation for his new son, Mobley presented himself at the US embassy. Embassy officials initially responded positively to his requests, but the documents say that relations “quickly soured”.
“US officials refused to process the family’s papers in a timely way, and instead interrogated Mr Mobley about his contacts and activities in Yemen,” the lawyers’ account says. Mobley was asked about his links with Anwar al-Awlaki, a US-born radical Islamic cleric believed by the US government to be connected to the failed Detriot attack.
“Sharif openly admits that he had been in limited contact with al-Awlaki,” says Cori Crider, Mobley’s lawyer. “But he categorically denies that he was involved in or aware of any plot or link to al-Qaeda.”
When he left the embassy, Mobley told his wife, Nzinga Saba Islam, that he thought he had been followed home. The family returned to the embassy several times, but each time found their documents had not been processed and instead, the questioning continued. Their last visit was two days before his arrest.
When she realised her husband was missing, Nzinga immediately reported his disappearance to the embassy, where she was told to file a report with Yemeni police.
That night, at 1am, as she lay worrying about what had happened to her husband, the documents say around 15 men burst into the family home. The family were held at gunpoint and searched, while the house was raided and items confiscated.
Nzinga has told lawyers that the following morning she returned to the US embassy. As she waited to file a report about what had happened, she insists that she saw the man who had led the raid on her home wearing a US embassy pass.
“He was, as far as Nzinga could tell, in charge of the raid on her home,” Crider says. “She asked the embassy about him and what he was doing there, but embassy officials never gave her a straight answer.”
The documents allege that embassy officials listened to what Nzinga had to say, and began to question her about her husband’s activities in Yemen. Amongst the items she says they showed her were photographs taken during the raid on the house.
Meanwhile, Mobley says he was chained, blindfolded, to a hospital bed, being interrogated by two men who introduced themselves as “Matt and Khan” and said they worked for the US government. His lawyers say the two men told him that he would never see his family again and would be raped in Yemeni prison.
The lawyers say he was interrogated repeatedly over the coming weeks, and that he was badly beaten by Yemeni security forces while being moved between detention facilities.
Eventually he says he was taken to another hospital, where Matt and Khan continued to question him over his links to al-Awlaki. His lawyers say that at no point was he offered consular assistance, and that he was desperate for news of his family, who he was told would be arrested.
In early March, Mobley is alleged to have launched an escape bid from the hospital, in which he is accused of shooting dead one of his guards and wounding another. Murdering a guard is a capital offence in Yemen; if found guilty in his upcoming trial, Mobley could be executed by firing squad.
“My husband’s prolonged secret detention and abusive interrogation are directly responsible for the circumstances he is in now,” Nzinga says. “Our troubles began with a trip to the embassy. If we, as Americans abroad, cannot trust our embassy to help us, who can we trust?”
Meanwhile, his lawyers are calling for US authorities to release all information pertaining to his case as a matter of urgency, arguing that the court needs the full facts surrounding Mobley’s initial detention in January to ensure he has a fair trial.
The US has refused to answer any of the allegations laid against it by Mobley’s legal team, but Crider says the American agents involved have a responsibility to come forward.
“Since the US arranged the abduction at the heart of this case, US agents are obviously key witnesses for the defence,” she says. “We will seek to call them to testify at the upcoming trial. And given that Sharif’s life is at stake, there can be no excuse for ‘Matt and Khan’ not coming forward about their role in this tragedy.”
While it is not possible to independently verify the account of Sharif Mobley’s arrest given by his legal team, few analysts in Yemen doubt that coordination on security operations is occurring at a senior level between US and Yemeni authorities.
“There are incidents where we see high level cooperation, and others where that cooperation breaks down,” says Abdul Ghani al-Aryani, a Yemeni political analyst. “If the government of Yemen cooperated in this case, it would be a risk free opportunity to gain credit with the Americans, given the individual in question is an American.”
US state department officials contacted by Al Jazeera declined to comment on Mobley’s case, citing concerns over his privacy. The US justice department was contacted to respond to general allegations that the US has played a role in the arrest and interrogation of its own citizens in Yemen, but also refused to comment on the matter. The Pentagon failed to respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.