Ivory Coast is a small African country, but it has its pride. It is not very high on America at the moment, nor very confident of our justice system. That is because one of its citizens, Tony Oulai, a 34-year-old pilot who was here on a government scholarship, has been in jail for 4 1/2 months with only a minor immigration charge against him. The FBI, which insists on holding him, can't seem to get it through its head that he is not an Arab Muslim, as it keeps describing him, but an African Catholic. Ivory Coast is indignant at the mislabeling.
Tony Oulai was caught up in the great dragnet that followed Sept. 11. He has been whisked around six U.S. prisons since the day he was picked up at a Florida airport and screeners found a stun gun and flight manuals in his luggage. In one jail, he alleges, he was beaten. The administrator of the Baker County (Fla.) Detention Center retorts, as a denial, that the facility has TV and microwave ovens in every cell. The Justice Department and the Immigration and Naturalization Service are involved because Oulai overstayed his student visa. They refuse all comment, even on a secret document obtained by The Post that exonerates Oulai from any involvement in the events of Sept. 11.
Oulai told his story to Post reporter Amy Goldstein, who related in vivid detail his odyssey through East Coast prisons and his failure to convince the government that he is who he is. He is one of hundreds of noncitizens who have been detained indefinitely while the bunglers at the FBI keep trolling for cause to keep them. The day after Goldstein told his story, which was reprinted in full by Ivory Coast press, Oulai was put into solitary confinement, supposedly for his effrontery in going public.
Oulai's fellow inmates at the Alexandria Detention Center include two prominent detainees: Zacarias Moussaoui, indicted as a co-conspirator in the hijacking; and John Walker Lindh, the 20-year-old Californian with a fatal attraction to Islamic fundamentalism. At his indictment on charges that could keep him in jail for life, Lindh's lawyers presented allegations of mistreatment that amounted to torture at the hands of American military jailers. He alleges that he signed away his right to a lawyer and made a "voluntary" confession under duress.
A spokeswoman for the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, Washington office director Elisa Massimino, says that such charges of mistreatment "go against the image of ourselves as a decent people -- nobody should be treated that way."
Nobody's making any brief for Lindh, who seems to have been the teenager from hell. Public opinion is massively against him: some howl for his head; others blame permissive and faddish parents who indulged him in his quest for an Islamic theocracy. His lawyers argue that he never went to war against America, only against the Northern Alliance.
The presentation of the case has been highlighted by the hovering, baleful presence of Attorney General John Ashcroft, who held a hard-breathing press conference and acted as though he had just reeled in Osama bin Laden. Lindh's lead attorney, James Brosnahan, scoffs at Ashcroft's notion that his misguided client is a surrogate for the elusive cave man.
The most contested prison issue, the Guantanamo cages of "Camp X-Ray" -- which caused a furor in Europe and were hotly debated in the British parliament -- came back, too. It should be noted that Guantanamo seems like the Four Seasons when compared with a notorious U.S.-sponsored jail near Mazar-e Sharif, where Physicians for Human Rights found 70 to 80 people crammed into cells intended for 10. The commander in chief issued a so-called policy reversal, which amounted to two cheers for the Geneva Convention, the international pact that protects prisoners from interrogation, among other things. Now Talibans can be included in the convention. The change represented a victory of sorts for the former field commander who is our secretary of state, Colin Powell. Powell could picture U.S. Special Forces without uniforms or visible weapons falling into the hands of some warlord in a terrorist-infested country.
The world is judging us not exclusively by our military successes; it is watching closely how we treat prisoners. Obviously, in our campaign to show the world what we are all about, we have to demonstrate that our policies are not based on our opinions of our new terrorist enemies but on standards of justice to all. John Walker Lindh tries our patience, but we have to follow our own rules in dealing with him. As for Tony Oulai, the FBI better acknowledge a mistake and let him go home. Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo has been in Washington this week telling anyone who will listen that his country will welcome Oulai back -- and make him available in the event that the bunglers get a bite.
© 2002 The Washington Post Company