Saudi American in ‘the Wrong Place at the Wrong Time’


Saturday  July 5, 2003

Faiza Saleh Ambah • Associated Press

MAKKAH, 5 July 2003 — Nearly two years have passed since Yaser Esam Hamdi returned to his native United States, handcuffed and classed as an “enemy combatant” after American forces captured him in Afghanistan.

A court appeal for his right to have a lawyer and answer the allegations is pending, but the parents of the 22-year-old Saudi from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, are no closer to knowing if they will ever see him again.

They say they should at least be allowed to visit him in prison. “If they consider him an American, then why don’t they try him and give him his constitutional rights as an American?” says his mother, Nadia Hamdi.

Esam and Nadia Hamdi say Yaser, the eldest of their five boys, finished his sophomore year at King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals, Dhahran, and suddenly left for Afghanistan without their knowledge in July, 2001. Less than two months later, they say, he phoned his mother saying he wanted to come home but feared his father was angry at him for having gone to Afghanistan without permission.

The next time they saw him was in a file photo taken in Afghanistan and shown on television when he was flown to the States in April last year.

“We were relieved. We watched the footage of the plane landing in Virginia over and over again. At least we knew where he was. And that he was alive,” Nadia Hamdi told the Associated Press in the holy city of Makkah, where the family is visiting relatives. It was her first interview since her son’s arrest.

In the photo taken in Afghanistan, “He was very, very thin. His face was skeletal. He was dressed like an Afghan, and his hair was unkempt and long and curly,” his mother said. It was a big change from the slightly overweight, devout young man who lived a sheltered life, prayed five times a day and liked to make his mother laugh.

US officials say Hamdi was one of two Americans captured when their Taleban unit was overrun in the Mazar-e-Sharif prison in November, 2001.

The other is John Walker Lindh, who last October was sentenced to 20 years in prison after pleading guilty to supplying services to the Taleban, Afghanistan’s one-time rulers who harbored the Al-Qaeda organization.

Hamdi was flown to the US Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and held there for several months until it was discovered he was born in Baton Rouge. Then he was transferred to a naval brig in Norfolk, Virginia.

“It was the first time he’d been back to the United States. And it was in handcuffs,” said Hamdi’s father, a chemical engineer who worked in Louisiana before bringing his family back to Saudi Arabia when his son was 3.

He said he has written to 23 US representatives pointing out that Lindh’s relatives are allowed to visit him in prison. “I said to them, is it fair, because his (Lindh’s) parents and his grandparents are American he’s treated differently? He can see his family. He can talk to them. I said, if my son’s guilty, he should be tried. And if he’s innocent, he should be set free.”

He said one congressman and one senator replied and told him there’s little they can do.

In January, a US court of appeals reviewing Hamdi’s case ruled that US citizens captured overseas could be treated as enemy combatants without concern for the rights normally afforded in criminal cases.

Hamdi was “squarely within the zone of active combat” and had an AK-47 rifle, the court said.

He has not been allowed access to a lawyer or to the government’s evidence supporting its claims that he fought with Al-Qaeda and Taleban forces against the United States. An appeal case is pending but no hearing date has been set.

Hamdi has maintained contact with his family through monthly letters, usually around 10 pages long. “I go out 15 minutes a day. I look at the sky. I see birds. I get bitten by mosquitoes,” he wrote in one letter.

“He’s being treated well. But he misses us,” says his mother. “In his letters he asks each one of us individually to pray for his early release.”

“He’s already asked me to start looking for a bride for him,” she adds with a laugh. “He wants her to be very beautiful, very fair, with black or dark brown hair.”

Hamdi’s father thinks his son was simply unlucky, going to Afghanistan just two months before the Sept. 11 attacks. “He was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.”


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