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Torture Suit A Test of Foreign Relations - And for Judge

LOS ANGELES - A federal judge is weighing whether to green-light a human rights lawsuit with sensitive geopolitical implications that seeks civil monetary damages from three members of the royal family in Abu Dhabi - including the Emir, a key U.S. ally in the Middle East.

The case, which centers around allegations of detention and torture from the mid 1980s, is likely to hinge on whether the plaintiff waited too long to bring a civil suit, and whether the district court has jurisdiction. It marks one of the first hotly watched cases handled by Judge Dolly Gee since she joined the Central District court in 2009.

 

In the lawsuit, Khaled Al Hassen, a naturalized U.S. Citizen who lives in West Covina, accuses Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the emir of Abu Dhabi, and Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the crown prince as well as General Saeed Hilal Abdullah Al Darmaki of illegally detaining and torturing him throughout most of 1984 and 1985. The defendants had not ascended to power at that time, and were competing with Al Hassen in the opaque world of private defense contractor consulting.

The suit comes at a time when the United States is trying to strengthen its ties with the United Arab Emirates. The country, composed of several kingdoms, of which Abu Dhabi is the capital, has grown into the largest U.S. export market in the Arab-speaking world. It also is experimenting with more progressive social, economic and environmental policies.

Though not a party to the case, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a brief requesting immunity for the Sheikh Khalifa because he is the sitting head of state for the UAE. Gee opened a hearing on the motion to dismiss Monday, by saying she is inclined to grant the emir immunity, but she may allow discovery against the other two defendants.

Edwin Smith, who teaches law and international relations at USC's Gould School of Law, said the case is fraught with thorny diplomatic issues. It "ought to speak volumes" that the Justice Department did not seek immunity for the other two defendants, Smith said.

"The fact that the brief only speaks to the head of state has to be noted," Smith said. "Because to the extent that you have the sort of mistreatment that's being alleged, they don't want to stand in the way of someone" seeking redress.

The law firm Clark, Goldberg & Madruga in Century City filed the suit on behalf of Al Hassen in February 2009.

Though the alleged torture and detention of Al Hassen took place over a 22-month period about 25 years ago, his attorneys said two things happened in recent years that finally persuaded him to file suit.

First, after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Al Hassan gradually decided he was safer in the U.S. from assassins from the Middle East, his attorneys said. Second, he recently obtained U.S. State Department memos that detailed government-led efforts to locate him in the United Arab Emirates and find out the reason for his imprisonment, they said.

"Khaled is a very brave man to even come forward now," his attorney, Roger Clark, said. "He still lives in fear because this is a very powerful group of men."

According to the complaint, Al Hassen was abducted in January 1984 while working for the International Trading Circle - a company owned and operated by another member of the royal family of Abu Dhabi. The company's clients included Raytheon, Bell Helicopters and Hawker Beechraft.

The defendants' companies were business rivals, allegedly advising defense contractors from Italy and France, another one of Al Hassen's attorneys told the judge at Monday's hearing. They allege Al Hassen was detained in a dimly-lit cell and tortured as well as told to confess to committing crimes against the interests of the United Arab Emirates. Sheikh Mohamed and General Saeed Hilal personally witnessed some of the torture, according to the complaint.

Defense attorney Thomas O'Brien, of Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker, said he had no reason to dispute that the plaintiff was detained, but said the detention was for crimes committed in the United Arab Emirates.

O'Brien, the former U.S. Attorney in Los Angeles, argued the claims are time-barred and lack jurisdiction, since the defendants reside in the United Arab Emirates and have never visited California.

However, Gee responded that there could be an argument that "extraordinary circumstances" are tolling the statute of limitations until there is regime change in the United Arab Emirates, and the defendants lose power. But she also questioned the plaintiff on the timing of the suit.

"The court is concerned that the standard is rather squishy," the judge said, noting it appeared that the lawsuit was filed simply because the plaintiff now felt comfortable taking his claims public.

Stephen Grand, a fellow at the Brookings Institute where he is director of U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, said it is difficult to gauge exactly what kind of impact the case could have on the relations between the two countries if it is allowed to proceed. But he said the allegations do carry a heightened significance because the United Arab Emirates has emerged as a key ally and is seen by the U.S. government as a positive influence. For example, it is translating key works of literature into Arabic, testing environmentally-friendly technology and giving women more rights - all while becoming an example of extreme wealth.

A trial over alleged torture by one of the country's sitting leaders could complicate that developing success story.

"The hope is that when others see how Abu Dhabi is doing they might see it as an attractive path forward," Grand said. "It's an example of how you can blend one's own culture and modernity."

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