Terror Cases: Material Witness Nightmare

The New York Times writes about the abysmal treatment accorded those arrested on material witness warrants in terror cases.

About 60 other men have been held in terrorism investigations under the federal material witness law since the Sept. 11 attacks, according to a coming report by Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union. Such laws, meant to ensure that people with important information do not disappear before testifying, have been used to hold people briefly since the early days of the republic.

But scholars and critics say the government has radically reinterpreted what it means to be a material witness in recent years. These days, people held as material witnesses in terrorism investigations are often not called to testify against others; instead, frequently they are charged with crimes themselves. They lack constitutional protections like the requirement that criminal suspects in custody be informed of their Miranda rights. Moreover, they are often held for long periods in the same harsh conditions as those suspected of very serious crimes.

Abdullah al Kidd is one of them. As a result of his arrest and prolonged detention, he lost his marriage, his scholarship and almost his sanity:

Abdullah al Kidd was on his way to Saudi Arabia to work on his doctorate in Islamic studies in March 2003 when he was arrested as a material witness in a terrorism investigation. An F.B.I. agent marched him across Dulles Airport in Washington in handcuffs. "It was the most horrible, disgraceful, degrading moment in my life," said Mr. Kidd, an American citizen who was known as Lavoni T. Kidd when he led his college football team, the Vandals of the University of Idaho, in rushing in 1995.

The two weeks that followed his arrest, he said, were a terrifying and humiliating ordeal. "I was made to sit in a small cell for hours and hours and hours buck naked," he said. "I was treated worse than murderers."

The Administration is abusing the material witness law and using it for purposes for which it was not designed:

"The law was designed to hold Mr. A, the material witness, to testify about a crime committed by Mr. B, the suspect," he said. "Now they are locking up Mr. A as a material witness to the crime of Mr. A. The notion is, 'We'll hold him until we develop probable cause to arrest him for a crime.' "

Now everyone who has any conceivable Middle Eastern tie is considered to be a flight risk," said Randall Hamud, a lawyer who has represented three material witnesses. "That's never been the case before. It's become a very popular device for rounding people up. It's a systemic weapon used against an ethnically identifiable group. It's a holding device."

There's lots more in the article, if you can, read the whole thing.

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