US citizen abducted in Yemen pleads for help amid Saudi strikes

An American missing for over a year in Yemen used a guard’s cellphone to call his lawyers and plead for help

New Jersey native Sharif Mobley, who was abducted by Yemeni security forces in 2010, made a distressed phone call to his lawyers Monday, saying that warplanes were bombing the military base where he was being detained.

The call, in which he pleaded for the U.S. government to help him escape, was the first time Mobley has spoken to his legal team in over a year, according to Reprieve, the legal charity representing him.

Five years ago in Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, eight masked Yemeni security officials burst out of two white vans, shot Mobley in the legs and shoved him into a van, according to legal documents seen by Al Jazeera.

Mobley’s lawyers at Reprieve say the FBI interrogated Mobley shortly after this violent kidnapping. The Yemeni officers said at the time they were acting at the behest of an FBI attaché that suspected Mobley of having ties to Al-Qaeda’s Yemen branch, according to Mobley’s lawyers.

This alleged practice of proxy detention where the FBI facilitates or exploits the arrests of U.S. citizens by foreign governments has been widely condemned by civil libertarians, who say it circumvents due process rights by leaving the interrogation of suspects to others.

“President Obama promised never to repeat Bush-era abuses, but the worry is that now the U.S. may be simply outsourcing torture and disappearances in order to keep its fingerprints off the crime scene,” Cori Crider, a member of Mobley’s legal team, told Al Jazeera.

In September of last year, Houthi rebels captured Sanaa and the base where Mobley is being held from the internationally recognized Yemeni government.

During Monday's phone call, in which explosions could be heard in the background, Mobley pleaded for U.S. authorities to evacuate him from the prison. Mobley said Houthi fighters were firing anti-aircraft weapons at Saudi-led warplanes, which were targeting the base.

Saudi Arabia is currently leading a regional coalition in a campaign against Houthi rebels, who have overrun much of the country. While not taking direct military action, the U.S. has said it is coordinating military and intelligence support with Saudi Arabia. 

To push back against the Houthis, Saudi-led warplanes have targeted military bases and anti-aircraft positions located in populated neighborhoods in Sanaa, flattening homes and killing civilians.

In Monday's phone call, Mobley said he was being held in the basement cell of a base in Haddah, a southwestern suburb of Sanaa.

"I’m afraid for my life,” he told his lawyers. "There’s fighting at this military base and … Saudi Arabian bombing. It’s been bombed every night, and it’s very frightening.”

'There is fighting at this military base..'

He added, “I don't know if I'm going to make it out of here alive.”

Following Mobley's call, his legal team Tuesday reached out to the U.S. State Department, urging them to contact Saudi authorities to prevent the Saudi-led bombing campaign from striking the base at which Mobley is held.

It is now imperative that the U.S. government makes an immediate intervention with Saudi Arabia at the highest level in order to ensure that Saudi forces do not bomb the base, with the high likelihood that Mr. Mobley would be severely injured or killed,” Kat Craig, Reprieve's legal director, said in the letter addressed to the State Department. 

She added that the presence of civilian prisoners like Mobley would make any such attack a potential war crime.

'...I don't know if I'm going to make it out of here alive.'


Since his kidnapping, Mobley's attorneys say that they have struggled to obtain even basic information from the U.S. and Yemeni governments concerning his whereabouts. 

What little information they have obtained has come largely from Freedom of Information Act requests and discreet phone calls made by Mobley using a sympathetic guard’s cell phone.

During Monday’s phone call, Mobley told his attorneys that that he was being detained in “the same prison that the American Embassy visited me at.”

He was referring to a visit by embassy officials in December of last year. “I told them how bad everything was, but they didn't do anything to get me out of here,” he said during the call.  

Since that visit, the U.S. government has made no contact with Mobley, and in February, the U.S. shuttered its embassy and evacuated its staff due to the deteriorating security situation.

In an interview with Al Jazeera, Mobley's wife, Nzingla Islam, said that she had pleaded with the State Department to help her husband escape in January, weeks before the U.S. closed its embassy.

Her appeal came after she received a phone call from Mobley that same month, in which he said the Houthis had seized the prison.

The State Department eventually responded, saying that no evacuation plans were in place. But a week later in February, the U.S. embassy was abandoned, leaving Mobley with no point of contact.

“We’ve been left in the dark," she said. 

Mobley told his wife during that call in January that he had been beaten several times and was forced to drink out of the same bottle he had previously urinated in.

“The first duty of any government is to protect its citizens," said Craig from Reprieve. “The U.S. knows Sharif’s location and is refusing to do anything to help him. The State Department must give the Saudis the prison coordinates and instruct them not to bomb it. And they must bring their citizen home as soon as possible — before it is too late.”

With The Associated Press

Mobley's sister: 'I love you''

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