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US diplomats admit contact in Yemen with missing citizen Sharif Mobley

US diplomats in Yemen say they have been in contact with an American citizen whose lawyers consider him to have disappeared from jail in the country. The diplomats, however, will not reveal where he is.

Cori Crider, an attorney for Sharif Mobley, who faces a murder case after authorities abandoned terrorism charges, expressed shock to the Guardian that US authorities would not tell her where her client is. Crider suspected that the US, which sent interrogators to interview Mobley shortly after he was detained, is complicit in his apparent disappearance.

Early on Friday, the US embassy in Sanaa shifted from its months of silence on Sharif, who has been unavailable to his lawyers since 27 February.

An embassy official, William Lesh, emailed Crider and said: “The Yemeni authorities recently did make it possible for us to meet with him. For security reasons we cannot disclose the location.”

For months, Yemeni officials have insisted that Mobley remains in Sanaa’s Central Prison, despite his lack of appearances in at least two court hearings this year and his lawyers’ inability to find him. Mobley’s charges carry the death penalty.

“Mr Mobley appeared to be in good health with no major complaints. He said we could tell everyone he is fine,” continued Lesh, who said Mobley requested the diplomats contact his local attorney.

“He did not wish us to contact anyone else,” Lesh said.

US officials have been involved in Mobley’s detention in murky ways since it began in 2010.

Mobley, who hails from New Jersey, moved to Yemen in 2008 to study Arabic. He had become a devout Muslim and his friends considered him radicalized. Reportedly, US officials believed Mobley could lead them to a priority counterterrorism target, another US Muslim in Yemen – the al-Qaida propagandist Anwar al-Awlaki. The US substantially underwrites the Yemeni security services.

In January 2010, shortly after a man with ties to al-Awlaki attempted to bomb a civilian jetliner, a group of armed men snatched Mobley at gunpoint, shot him in the leg and detained him. Declassified and heavily redacted FBI documents show that US interrogators showed up to his hospital bed on 30 January 2010 and claim he was “medically cleared for questioning”.

Yemen charged Mobley with murder after a guard was killed following what authorities claim was an escape attempt. It did not file terrorism charges.

In June, a Yemeni judge ordered the country’s attorney general, Ali Alwash, to produce Mobley at a trial hearing scheduled for 20 August.

Crider, an attorney with the British human rights group Reprieve, has said Mobley disappeared shortly before attorneys were to introduce evidence in court detailing further US involvement in his original detention.

Crider said she doubts that Mobley can receive a fair trial after being denied counsel for five months and called upon the US embassy to ensure with the Yemenis that he can see his lawyers.

“It’s very worrying that the US government knows where its disappeared citizen is and flatly refuses to tell his family or his lawyers,” Crider told the Guardian.

“They won’t even state which government agency holds him. It’s hard not to conclude US officials are mixed up in this detention, just as they were involved in Mr Mobley’s first disappearance.”

Lesh, who told Crider US diplomats “look forward to visiting [Mobley] again soon”, did not immediately respond to a request for comment and questions concerning his access to Mobley.

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