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Story of an American Detained Overseas

Last month, an American citizen who spent over a year imprisoned in the Middle East was quietly freed by his captors in the United Arab Emirates. That man, Naji Hamdan, is now reunited with his family in Beruit, Lebanon. In his first broadcast interview since being freed, Hamdan spoke to me about his ordeal.

Hamdan is a 43-year-old Lebanese-American who spent 20 years living in southern California. Until three weeks ago, he was jailed by the UAE in a terrorism case still shrouded in mystery.

Hamdan spent 14 months behind bars in what he and his attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union call "proxy detention," suggesting that Hamdan was detained by the UAE at the request of the United States.

"Without a doubt. Without a single doubt in my mind," Hamdan says.

Hamdan spoke to me by telephone from Beruit, discussing his captivity and trial in which he wasn't permitted to testify. He stood accused of supporting terrorism and participating in a terrorist group. But even as it convicted him, the UAE never made clear what he allegedly did.

"For them to arrest me for this kind of charge, I have no doubt in my mind that the United States is behind my arrest in UAE," Hamdan says.

More from CBS News on Hamdan's case:
American Held in UAE: "Proxy Detention"?
Podcast from CBS Weekend Roundup

To understand why Hamdan thinks that, you have to go back 10 years to the foiled al Qaeda plot to bomb Los Angeles International Airport around New Year's, 2000. The would-be millennium bomber, Ahmed Ressam, had been caught driving with a trunk full of explosives at the Washington State border with Canada.

One morning in late 1999, an FBI agent knocked at Hamdan's door in Hawthorne, California, near L.A. It was 6 a.m.

"He flashed the badge in my face and asked me if I knew Osama bin Laden," Hamdan says.

Hamdan said he didn't. He also didn't know why the FBI had come to him. He was a married father of three children and owned an auto parts business. He was active in his local mosque and described by friends as "religious" but not radical.

"If there was somebody that wanted to do any terrorist act on the land of the United States, would I contact them?" Hamdan says. "And I said, 'yes, of course.'"

After the September 11th attacks, the FBI came knocking again and again, but Hamdan was never able to provide any tips, nor was he ever arrested.

"I'm not a terrorist. I'm an American. I'm a Muslim, yes. I am a family man. I'm a father. I have a business. I'm a successful businessman," Hamdan says. "Never been to Pakistan, never been to Afghanistan, never been to any other place except Lebanon, the UAE and the United States."

Two years after he moved his family to the UAE, in August 2008, Hamdan was arrested by state security forces, detained in solitary confinement, and then, he says, tortured for weeks. He says his captors threatened to abduct and rape his wife, and that they beat his feet so badly he could not walk.

"Every time I'm in the interrogator's room, I would be punched, slapped, kicked in the liver area. I think that I lost consciousness several times," Hamdan says.

One time, underneath his blindfold, Hamdan believes he saw an American in the interrogation room. Unlike everyone else, he was wearing gray pants and dress shoes and spoke perfect English.

"He said, 'You better cooperate with these people or they will f___ you up,'" Hamdan says.

Hamdan says he was blindfolded when he signed a statement his captors had written for him.

"I never read that confession. I do not know what's in it," he says. "They wrote it and they made me sign it."

It was 10 months before he even had a court appearance. Eventually, a prosecutor in UAE alleged Hamdan had ties to al Qaeda in Iraq, which he denies.

"I am not affiliated with them, I do not support them. I do not condone anything they do," Hamdan says.

The FBI won't say why it was interested in Hamdan over the years or why it sent a pair of counter-terrorism agents to visit him after his move to the UAE just three weeks before his arrest there.

For the record, the FBI says that it never requested the UAE detain him. The CIA has declined to comment. The State Department provided consular services during Hamdan's captivity, as it would for any American detained overseas, but they would not disclose any other information. Nor world the UAE embassy in Washington.

In frustration during his trial, Hamdan even wrote to President Obama, complaining that American officials were turning their backs on human rights abuses in UAE, including his arrest and alleged torture. Hamdan's eldest son said he felt abandoned by the country where he and his two siblings grew up.

"An American citizen was almost beaten to death, and the American government turned their faces away from him," Hamdan says.

After a few court sessions, a judge in the UAE pronounced Hamdan guilty. He faced a possible life sentence but got only a year and a half, essentially time already served, and was deported.

"Freedom is precious," Hamdan says. "I can't express my feelings about it."

Now, he says, he is looking forward to rebuilding his life with his Lebanon.

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