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Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Guilt by Association 

Since "everything changed," you don't have to be suspected of terrorism to lose your Constitutional rights; you merely have to be suspected of knowing something about someone who's suspected of terrorism. From the New York Times:
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 . . . .

"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."

After that, a federal judge ordered him to move in with his in-laws in Las Vegas, where his wife was planning to stay until she joined him in Saudi Arabia.

Mr. Kidd, who described himself as "anti-bin Laden, anti-Taliban, anti-suicide bombing, anti-terrorism," was never charged with a crime and never asked to testify as a witness. In June, 16 months after his arrest, the court said he was free to resume his life.

But at the kitchen table of his dumpy little bachelor flat here, with a television on the floor and incense in the air, Mr. Kidd said the experience had cost him dearly. He lost his [college football] scholarship, he now moves furniture for a living, and his marriage has fallen apart. 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 . . . .

"The law was designed to hold Mr. A, the material witness, to testify about a crime committed by Mr. B, the suspect," [law professor Ronald L. Carlson] 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.' "

A senior Justice Department official who declined to be quoted by name, citing the sensitivity of terrorism investigations, dismissed that analysis. "You would be really hard pressed," he said, "if you were able to lift the veil of secrecy on this - and you can't - to find that we've used a material witness warrant to get a solo actor for something he's done on his own."

Defense lawyers said that many people willing to testify voluntarily have nonetheless been detained.

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