Ziad Abu Ein regards himself as a political prisoner -- a hostage of sorts -- enduring a long wait for justice and freedom. The 20-year-old Jordanian citizen and West Bank resident has been held without bail in Chicago's Metropolitan Corrections Center for 17 months while US courts try to decide whether to extradite him to israel.
Israel claims that Mr. Abu Ein signed two confessions implicating him in a Tiberius marketplace bombing that killed two and injured 36 others. Abu Ein counters that the confessions were extracted under torture and have since been withdrawn. He says he is supported by 14 witnesses in his assertion that at the time of the bombing he was 120 miles away at a Ramallah hospital attending the birth of a nephew.
A US appeals court is now weighing whether to uphold the initial December 1979 court ruling here that Abu Ein be returned to Israel for trial. Its decision is expected any day.
The Arab world, and particularly Palestinians, are keeping close tabs on the case.
"From a Jordanian point of view, this is probably the preeminent international human rights case," observes one State Department source.
"To the Palestinian people, this is a very sensitive test case," adds Hatem Hussaini, a spokesman for the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in Washington. "If the US is going to literally kidnap people, hold them for a year and a half, and then give them to israel, what's all the fuss about the 52 hostages?"
The treaty in question, like most of its kind, makes an exception for political offenses on the obligation to extradite. Therein lies one of the thorniest issues in the case.
The defense, represented in court by former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark, has argued that those responsible for the bombing did it on the anniversary of Israel's independence for political reasons. The US Department of Justice, which routinely represents the extraditing country, argues that the incident was a criminal act.
Thus, the courts are trying to decide, not guilt or innocence, but whether the treaty applies and the evidence is sufficient to warrant extradition. Ultimately, if the case is appealed to the US Supreme Court and that body declines to hear it, US Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. could be the final arbiter.
The State Department -- consistent with a longtime position -- contends only that random terrorist action directed against civilian rather than military targets cannot be considered political incidents. If such actions were considered political, sources say, the precedent would be set for unlimited terrorist and escape possibilities.
In a two-hour interview with this reporter at the jail where he is being held , Abu Ein summarized his version of the case:
* Mr. Abu Ein insists he has a valid exit permit from Israel and a certificate of good conduct from the Israeli military government on the West Bank. He says he came to this country only in response to a plea from his sister in Chicago who was ill. If he were responsible for the bombing and knew that Israeli authorities were looking for him, he reasons, he would have fled to an Arab country where he would have been safe from any extradition order.
* He says he is convinced for several reasons that he could never receive a fair trial in Israel. US sources insist that Israel has given them firm assurances that the case would be tried in civil courts, which cannot confer the death penalty. But Abu Ein maintains that military courts prevail in the occupied territories and that more celebrated cases than his have gone to defeat in those courts. "He who steals your land is not going to give you legal rights ," he volunteers.
He says that after Israeli authorities launched the search for him, they detained and tortured his father and later arrested his older brother. "they told my family they would get me dead or alive," he recalls. He says he discounts the impact in any trial of public pressure on his behalf and of the questionable nature of the evidence. "The judgments [reached] are mostly political," he insists.
* Dressed in a brown jogging suit and sneakers, Mr. Abu Ein explains that his clothes and his refusal to do work such as cleaning the showers are both part of his effort -- accentuated for a time by a hunger strike -- to convince jail authorities that he is a political prisoner and has not been found guilty of any charge. At first in taking that stand, he says, he was given solitary confinement. But authorities have since come to accept his view. He says with obvious delight that he even managed to raise the Palestinian flag for three hours from the recreation area on top of the building on the first anniversary of his arrest.
Mr. Clark has said that he thinks the case has "profound implications," particularly for the growing role of signed confessions in the presumption of guilt: "When you look around and see how frequently nations have come to rely simply on confessions, you realize they've almost been substituted for fact finding and the process of criminal justice.Seizing and transferring people on request like this is terribly dangerous and makes the human being into a mere pawn. . . . We keep forgetting that this man ardently proclaims his innocence."