A federal judge ruled today that an American held in Saudi Arabia for suspected links to terrorism might be able to challenge his detention in a U.S. court because of evidence U.S. officials were behind the arrest.

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WASHINGTON — A federal judge ruled today that an American held in Saudi Arabia for suspected links to terrorism might be able to challenge his detention in a U.S. court because there is “considerable” evidence U.S. officials were behind the arrest.


The family of Ahmed Abu Ali, who grew up in Falls Church, Va., claims U.S. officials want to keep him in Saudi Arabia so he can be tortured for information.


U.S. District Judge John Bates did not rule on the legitimacy of the claims, but said there is “at least some circumstantial evidence that Abu Ali has been tortured during interrogations with the knowledge of the United States.”


He rejected the government’s request to dismiss the case for lack of jurisdiction and ordered federal lawyers to provide documents showing whether U.S. officials played a role in Abu Ali’s arrest and detention.


The case is believed to be the first to challenge the U.S. government’s position that Americans have no access to U.S. courts when they are arrested by a foreign government. Legal experts said it could set an important legal benchmark in the government’s worldwide pursuit of terrorists.


“U.S. officials should not be free to avoid the limits of the law simply by making side arrangements with foreign governments to lock up people at our behest,” said Georgetown University law professor David Cole, a frequent critic of Bush administration counterterrorism policies. “If the United States is calling the shots, then the United States should be answerable in court.”


Justice Department spokesman Charles Miller said officials were reviewing the decision and had no immediate comment. In the past, the government has said Saudi officials acted on their own and plan to file charges against Abu Ali.


Abu Ali, 23, was enrolled in a Saudi university when he was imprisoned without charges on June 11, 2003. Bates said Abu Ali’s family provided “considerable” evidence that the U.S. government orchestrated his capture. In his ruling, Bates cited some of the family’s claims:


—FBI agents attended Abu Ali’s interrogation by Saudi officials and raided his parents’ house in northern Virginia at roughly the same time.


—Three other U.S. citizens living in Saudi Arabia were arrested almost simultaneously with Abu Ali and extradited to the United States to stand trial. One of them testified he was told by U.S. and Saudi officials that he was arrested at the behest of the United States.


—Saudi officials have told U.S. officials they would release Abu Ali if the United States requested it.


The lawsuit filed by the World Organization for Human Rights USA on Abu Ali’s behalf said he should have the same chance to contest his detention that the Supreme Court gave last June to foreign-born terrorism suspects held at the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.


In his decision, Bates rejected the U.S. government’s position that an American court could never have jurisdiction over the plight of a U.S. citizen held captive in a foreign country.


Relying on the Guantanamo ruling, Bates said such a declaration is too sweeping and would allow the government “to deliver a United States citizen to a foreign country to avoid constitutional scrutiny, or … work through the intermediary of a foreign country to detain a United States citizen abroad.”


“The court concludes that a citizen cannot be so easily separated from his constitutional rights,” he said.


Federal prosecutors in Virginia tried this year to link Abu Ali, who holds U.S.-Jordanian dual citizenship, to other men who later were convicted of training for holy war against the United States by playing paintball games in the Virginia woods. But Abu Ali was not charged in that case.


Abu Ali’s family cited two instances where they say the assistant U.S. attorney in the Virginia case made comments indicating that Abu Ali has had his fingernails removed in the Saudi jail. They also say a witness in Saudi Arabia told them Abu Ali was in so much pain he was unable to pick up a pen to sign documents.