Podcast: The Case of Sharif Mobley, Detained American Possibly Killed in Saudi Attack in Yemen
His family and lawyers representing him are afraid he has been killed. They have pled for assistance from the United States State Department. Like previous attempts to obtain assistance, the US government has failed the American’s family miserably.
Authorities in Yemen (and presumably the US government as well) claim that Mobley attempted to escape a hospital after he was kidnapped. He has been accused of shooting a guard, who died later, and faces a murder charge. That has been the justification by the Yemen government for his continued detention. It does not, however, justify how he has essentially been held incommunicado.
On the “Unauthorized Disclosure” weekly podcast, Kat Craig is the show’s guest. She is the legal director of the international human rights non-governmental organization, Reprieve. She has worked extensively on Mobley’s case.
Kat Craig, legal director for Reprieve, which is an international human rights non-governmental organization, joins the show to talk about Sharif Mobley’s case.
Later in the episode, hosts Rania Khalek and Kevin Gosztola talk about the Obama administration being ordered to redact and prepare videos of Guantanamo Bay force-feeding for release. Khalek highlights the $1.9 million in arms being given to Israel by the Obama administration. Khalek and Gosztola also talk about the made-up terrorist group in Syria, “Khorasan Group,” which the US government conjured to build support for war. Finally, Gosztola delves into the importance of the expiration of Patriot Act provisions.
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KEVIN GOSZTOLA: Would you introduce Sharif Mobley and explain why he has been imprisoned in Yemen?
KAT CRAIG: Sharif is an American citizen. He’s from New Jersey, originally. And in 2008, he traveled to Yemen with his family, and, like many people, he went to Yemen to study Arabic. It’s well known for its good quality Arabic schools and its classical interpretation of the language. So, he traveled there and lived there quite happily for a number of years.
As the situation changed, coming up to 2010-2011, it became more difficult to live there and so in 2010 Sharif decided to travel back to the US with his family. He had initially arrived with his wife and young child but while they were there a second child had been born. So, to enable him to travel back and to get the relevant documents, he attended the US embassy.
He went a couple of times, and he was stalled. And eventually, when he came back one day trying again to get the right travel documents for his family, he was told to wait for a little while. He sat on the corner outside one of the streets. There’s a cafe. As he sat there, an unmarked van with men in balaclavas jumped out of the van and tried to grab him.
Now, Yemen has for some time been a poor country, and there are some risks in going there. One of those risks is Westerners, in particular, face more risk of kidnapping, one that sadly increases as time goes on. Sharif, seeing these men who did not identify themselves, who were armed, whose faces were covered, and who were in a civilian vehicle, tried to escape but he was captured and in the course of that he was shot in his leg.
That’s all we knew for a long time. His wife tried to contact the embassy and get their help but was stonewalled. And we now that for months he was stonewalled incommunicado. He was tortured horrifically. He was told that his family would be under threat. There were threats of rape and murder of his family. And while he was in secret detention, he was interrogated by the FBI, and we know that because of Freedom of Information Act documents subsequently disclosed that.
Ultimately, he popped up months later finally and emerged in the Yemeni justice system, as it was at the time, on unrelated charges, very clearly having been treated incredibly badly in the interim. So, he was kidnapped and he was disappeared and what has become clear from the investigation by Reprieve and the FOIA documents we obtained was that at the very least the Americans benefited from that by interrogating him in secret. Of course, the far more plausible scenario in a case like this with an American citizen is that they, in fact, procured his kidnap and detention. It was at the behest of the Americans.
GOSZTOLA: And so now with Yemen being in the middle of this war, there have been Saudi bombings of targets. The news, or the development, is that this compound where Mobley has been imprisoned was hit by a bomb and now your organization is terribly concerned, as well as his family is concerned.
CRAIG: Absolutely. It’s been an incredibly difficult time for his family. Sharif did not face an easy ride, even in the run-up. He has been detained since 2010 and consistently been denied access to his lawyers and denied justice even under the previous Yemeni regime. In fact, we last saw Sharif in February 2014 in Yemen, and he was subsequently taken to an undisclosed location then by the Hadi government, who has now been deposed by the Houthis. And he wasn’t produced for any of the court hearings. But, since the Houthi takeover, it seems that he has been in constant peril.
We were initially very pleased to take a call from him for the first time in many, many months in March of this year. In that call, he identified and confirmed what we’d suspected to be his location. As we understand it, he is being held at a special forces base that was previously run by the NSB, the National Security Bureau, who are the detaining authorities. And we passed that information on to the State Department in the US. It was clear from public source reporting, including the Wall Street Journal press report, that the US had been very closely cooperating with the Saudi regime and that the US had at the time been vetting targets.
We asked the US government at the time to make sure that they kept their own civilians safe, that they communicated with their partners in the Saudi regime and clarified the exact location, which we had then been able to provide with precise coordinates, and to say to the Saudis this is a place you cannot hit. And it was interesting because that reporting suggested very clearly that the system that was developed between the US and the Saudis was [inaudible] of particular interest to help the Saudis avoid civilian casualties.
Since then, we’ve contacted the State Department and a number of other limbs of the US government repeatedly, and the response has been nothing short of absolutely disgraceful. We’ve had very, very belated, completely unrelated messages, on a number of different occasions. And, as you say Kevin, on May 27, this Wednesday, we then received reports that the building Sharif has been in was hit and his family are exceptionally concerned about his well-being. We’ve asked the State Department to take urgent action to see if they can confirm any details with their partners and allies in the Saudi regime. As you know, they cooperating incredibly closely. We have had bounce backs from our email correspondents, our inboxes are full and cut-and-paste jobs from previous emails, which were irrelevant the first time around.
I think it’s absolutely undeniable that the US government has categorically failed to take steps to protect the life of an American citizen, where they were in full possession of information that they needed and had all of the means available to them to stop this from happening. And we simply hope for the best and that Sharif has survived the bombing. Goodness knows how his current state of mind will be if he is alive, but we very much hope that is the case. And we would simply urge the US government to finally do what’s right and to respond to his desperately worried family and to take steps to protect him.
GOSZTOLA: At this point, just to be clear, you don’t know if he’s alive, if he’s dead, and if he’s alive, you don’t know if he’s just escaped and fled to some other part of Yemen to hopefully get to safety?
CRAIG: Well, frankly, that would be the best case scenario, and one that would be completely understandable in the circumstances, considering he was kidnapped in the first place and then detained without access to his lawyers and terribly mistreated. I fear that’s not the most likely one. The compound is a large one and has been taken over by the Houthis. The bombing in, which we fear he may have been hit, was a very, very intense episode in Saudi attacks on the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, where Sharif is.
I think the best that we can hope for is that his precise location has somehow withstood bombing and one of the guards or members of the Houthis has taken pity on him and is trying to preserve his life as best as possible.
GOSZTOLA: Now, the issues with the State Department have not just been in the past couple months. As I understand, having followed this periodically over the last year to two years, the State Department has given Reprieve a lot of difficulty when it came to trying to represent Sharif Mobley in Yemen. Isn’t that true?
CRAIG: Well, absolutely. They’ve shown their hand to the extent that it’s very clear there’s no interest in the truth coming out and justice being done, and that’s just because all evidence we have been able to gather through—Not just through Freedom of Information Act requests but we’ve traveled to Yemen. We’ve tried to take evidence from doctors and nurses, who eventually were allowed to treat him. We’ve tried to speak to various different Yemeni officials. All of the evidence ultimately points to intense US involvement in a case where it has subsequently become clear that any concerns about Sharif’s intentions in Yemen or activities while he was there were completely and utterly unfounded.
And I think that perhaps the FBI was quick to jump the gun on this and later it became clear that Sharif was entirely innocent and now they’re doing everything they can to cover their tracks. So, as you say, we’ve had little assistance; in fact, no assistance. We’ve been consistently hampered in our efforts and it’s only because of our travels to Yemen and our attempts to contact relevant authorities to instruct local lawyers that we’ve been able to have any access to Sharif at all. I think it is entirely right to say that the US has neglected its duty to this American citizen in every single way possible and at every turn of events.
GOSZTOLA: One of the things that has been profound to me is there are these calls that Sharif has been able to make. It looks like going back to September 2014 was one of the first times that he was able to, but apparently some guard in the prison has given him a little bit of ability to reach the outside, which has made it possible to every now and then get in contact with his wife and provide information. And every so often you get these tidbits, but every time it’s been rather shocking to me to hear what he is describing about his experience in the prison.
CRAIG: Yes, and the last two calls have been particularly upsetting. In April and again in May, we received a telephone call with his sister, who has been taking these calls. As Sharif was speaking to us, he was shouting and saying they’re beating me. They’re beating me. And we could hear a scuffle in the background and as the phone call came to an end he said they’re going to kill me and the line cut. Even after a number of years of working on this, even for us [it was] incredibly upsetting and one can only imagine how difficult that must have been for his sister.
The calls have been very, very emotional. We’ve been part of them because it’s our job to represent to him and to try as best we can to support the family and to force the American government that they’ve so clearly shown they are unwilling to take. But it felt like we were trespassing on a private conversation, one of which may be the last between two siblings who clearly love each other very much. So, there’s no doubt in my mind that these calls are very clearly reflecting a genuine and acute fear that he will suffer not only serious mistreatment but that his life is in peril from a number of different threats.
GOSZTOLA: If it were to be confirmed more substantively that this imprisonment was happening by proxy through US authorities, what sort of legal issues would that entail?
CRAIG: Certainly, our view is that the US government are not only behind this but that they would bear not only moral but also legal culpability for that. Our priority to date in consultation with the family has been to keep Sharif as safe as possible, and because he was kept incommunicado for a long time and was not even able to benefit from the frankly fairly paltry justice the Yemeni system offered him. We’ve been working on those issues first and foremost, and to try and bring him home. That’s really what his family wants. They just want to see him home and safe, and, in fact, that has always been Sharif’s priority to come back to the US and just to get on with his life.
He’s a young guy. He’s got young kids, and he’s very committed to his family and just wants to get back. So, that’s been our priority to date. If we are able to achieve those goals, then certainly we would want to look to other options, including if the evidence can be conclusively provided [then] to hold the Americans to account. I see no reason why that shouldn’t be something that should be on the cards. Of course, it depends very much on what Sharif wants at the moment, and I say that we very much hope that he is alive and we will continue to push for his release and ultimate return to the US and then we’ll take it from there once he’s figured out what he wants to do.
GOSZTOLA: Any thoughts about how this fits into the general neglect of other Americans that have been trapped in Yemen as a result of the ongoing war? And I’m wondering if you isolate Sharif’s case or if you see the attitude of the State Department to be similar because there are others that have had issues getting out of Yemen.
CRAIG: I think Sharif’s case is an extreme one because all that we know suggests that US entities were behind his initial illegal kidnap, torture and detention, and that suggests that they have even less interest in helping secure his release. But, certainly, from our contacts in Yemen and the time that I’ve spent in Yemen and the people I’ve got to know while we were there, it’s frankly quite shocking considering the incredibly close relationship between the US and the Saudis and the repeated reports that show that they are cooperating incredibly closely—We’re talking about intelligence sharing, joint operation centers, direct targeting support. We’re talking about the US analyzing Saudi targets and deciding on which locations should be bombed for maximum effect. We’re talking about US warning Saudis for the potential of high collateral damage, and that’s been reported by Wall Street Journal, by Reuters.
It’s frankly inconceivable that a responsible state body would not use those bodies, those relationships, to protect its own citizens and to try and secure their safe return to their families, and it’s hugely disappointing and frankly inconceivable that any government would act that way.
GOSZTOLA: One last point, if you have anything to add—There is this disinterest in Sharif Mobley’s case on the part of the US government, and that seems to lead to you having no information about the case, which means when you and I want to have a discussion about it there’s very little that we have to go off. I would add it serves to blackout and make it difficult for people to remain concerned about what is happening to Sharif Mobley.
CRAIG: I absolutely agree. I think that it’s one of the hallmarks of the US “war on terror.” Not just proxy detentions, drone programs, etc. All of these aspects of the “war on terror” are notable for their covert nature, for the secrecy surrounding them, and it’s something that comes up time and time again—The US government simply refusing to answer questions. It’s astonishing for a country that holds itself out in the way that the US does.
And, of course, it’s not just the Americans. It’s the Brits just as much in the role that they play as the US’ major ally—and increasingly other countries in the European continent as well—That hiding behind this absolute veil of secrecy enables them to operate in a vacuum of accountability, where abuses are allowed to thrive. And I think it’s a profoundly non-democratic way of running a country and running any kind of foreign policy and one that ultimately does not benefit us.
I understand that the world is a complex place, and there are some real concerns that our governments have about our safety. But acting in this way that is so untransparent, where the rule of law is flouted so flagrantly by so many of the US allies and the US, does not become us and does not make us safer. It just gives the impression to people around the world that we are not people of the world and we consider there to be one rule of law for us and one rule of law for the rest of the world. And I think that makes us less, not more safe.
To listen to the full podcast episode, click here.