Jailing “witnesses” indefinitely

Last year I blogged about the Justice Department’s abuse of material witness statutes following 9/11. For over a year HRW lawyer Anjana Malhotra has been flying around the country interviewing those thrown into jail indefinitely as “material witnesses,” to terrorist activities. Now a full report [Witness to Abuse: Human Rights Abuses under the Material Witness Law since September 11] has just been released on this practice. Newsweek reports:

Since 9/11, the Justice Department has used a little-known legal tactic to secretly lock up at least 70 terror suspects—almost all of them Muslim men—and hold them without charges as “material witnesses” to crimes, in some cases for months. A report to be released this week by two civil-liberties groups finds nearly 90 percent of these suspects were never linked to any terrorism acts, resulting in prosecutors and FBI agents issuing at least 13 apologies for wrongful arrest.

The report cites instances in which agents used what it calls “flimsy” evidence to make arrests. A 68-year-old Virginia doctor named Tajammul Bhatti was arrested by the FBI in June 2002 after neighbors found magazines about flying and a phone number of a Pakistani nuclear scientist in his apartment. It turned out he had served in the U.S. Air Force National Guard and the Pakistani scientist was a childhood friend. Another “tip” led to the arrest of eight restaurant workers in Evansville, Ind., who were shackled and taken to a detention facility in Chicago. The FBI later apologized—but never disclosed the basis for their detention. “The law was never designed to be used this way,” says Anjana Malhotra, the prime author of the report.

The New York Times has more:

The new study sought to catalogue and quantify the treatment of the witnesses, and it found that a third of the 70 material witnesses it identified were jailed for at least two months. The study found that there might well have been more than 70 material witnesses, but secrecy provisions prevented a definitive tally. Of the 70 who were positively identified, 42 were released without any charges being filed, 20 were charged with non-terrorist offenses like bank or credit card fraud, four were convicted of supporting terrorism, and three others are awaiting trial on terrorism charges. More than a third were ultimately deported. None are still known to be held as witnesses.

Few of the material witnesses made national headlines. Among the notable exceptions were Zacarias Moussaoui, recently convicted of terrorism in connection with the Sept. 11 attacks; Jose Padilla, who was later declared an enemy combatant after authorities accused him of plotting to build a “dirty bomb;” and Brandon Mayfield, a Muslim lawyer in Portland who was jailed in connection with the 2004 Madrid train bombings after the F.B.I. mistakenly matched a fingerprint of his to the scene.

NPR features this on Monday as well.

[disclosure: Malhotra is a friend]

4 thoughts on “Jailing “witnesses” indefinitely

  1. Naah, don’t worry about all that.. people like us will never get jailed indefinitely without access to lawyers or trial.. all that’ll happen only to the swarthy evil fellas from yonder.. Aren’t you patriotic enough?

  2. More on Bhatti:

    Dr. Tajummal H. Bhatti of Marion, Virginia… immigrated to the US from Pakistan in the early 1960′s; served 20 years in the Virginia Air National Guard (with a TOP SECRET security clearance) and is retired from the Veteran’s Adminsitration where he was a staff psychiatrist. He was arrested a few weeks after 9-11 and held completely in secret. Until the case became public, he was never informed of any charges against him and was not allowed to contact anyone — not even an attorney. When he did not answer his telephone for several days, his son drove in from out of state and tracked down his father. The son then went to a local newspaper where a reporter tapped into a source in the federal court and learned where Bhatti was. When the newspaper broke the story, the federal prosecutor was finally forced to bring charges — which the federal judge tossed out. It seems that one of his neighbors — who had a long-standing dispute with Dr. Bhatti — convinced the apartment manager to search Bhatti’s apartment — where they found his pilot’s license and his computer. Based on this, the neighbor and the apartment reported Bhatti to the FBI for “suspicious activity.” [Chicago Report, a blog]

    Also, here’s a compendium of local news stories on the case.