TRENTON - A lawyer representing the family of a New Jersey man being held in Ethiopia for alleged ties to Islamic militants is calling for Congress to hold hearings on the case to determine what, if anything, the U.S. government is doing to help Amir Mohamed Meshal.

"Mr. Meshal's case raises important questions about the United States' failure to protect the rights of American citizens and its possible involvement in an operation designed to outsource an American citizen's detention to a foreign government to avoid this country's laws," wrote Jonathan Hafetz.

Meshal, 24, of Tinton Falls, Monmouth County, is one of dozens held by Ethiopia in what human-rights activists and lawyers say is an illegal detention program that violates international laws on deportations and the treatment of prisoners. Ethiopia denies the charges, saying that the detentions are part of the fight against terrorism and that it has the right to defend itself.

The New Jersey man was arrested in late January while trying to enter Kenya from Somalia. At the time, hundreds of people, including Islamist fighters, were fleeing Somalia, which had been controlled by hard-line Islamists, after Ethiopian troops invaded the country.

Meshal was later sent to Somalia and then to Ethiopia.

U.S. authorities in Washington have said that after interviewing Meshal in Kenya they determined he was not a threat and had not violated U.S. law. The State Department also said it formally protested his deportation from Kenya.

But an investigation by the Associated Press showed that many of the detainees in Ethiopia had been questioned by members of the FBI and the CIA, raising questions about the U.S. role in his arrest and detention.

"I think the U.S. has definitely played some role in this," said Hafetz. "Their hands are all over this."

The letter was addressed to members of a number of congressional committees including House Judiciary and Foreign Affairs.

Hafetz called on the committee members to look into issues such as what the United States is doing to secure Meshal's return, whether Meshal has been tortured or abused, and what role the United States played in his seizure and detainment.

Speaking from his home near the Jersey Shore, Meshal's father, Mohamed Meshal, said he would attend any congressional hearings about his son's case.

"I'm starting to lose hope," said Mohamed Meshal, who added that he has not spoken with his son since he was detained.

The New York City Bar Association yesterday also sent a letter to congressional members asking them to look into the Meshal situation.

"It raises a lot of troubling questions," said Barry Kamins, president of the association. "This is an American citizen. It seems that these circumstances at least require investigation."