NEW YORK (Reuters) – The United States abused a law intended to keep witnesses from fleeing when it jailed dozens of Muslim men after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, according to a report Monday by two major rights groups.
The 70 men, all but one of them Muslim, were suspected by the Justice Department of involvement in terrorism but were held as material witnesses rather than criminal suspects, said Jamie Fellner of Human Rights Watch, which released the report with the American Civil Liberties Union.
Human Rights Watch
The designation, intended to hold people who have information about a crime but may want to avoid testifying, allowed U.S. officials to buy time to investigate the men, she said.
Seven eventually were charged with involvement in terrorism.
“On the domestic front, the Justice Department’s unlawful use of the material witness statute is perhaps the most extreme but least well-known of the government’s post-Sept. 11 abuses,” said Lee Gelernt, an attorney with the ACLU.
Of the seven men charged, four were convicted and three are awaiting trial, Fellner said. Two others are being held as enemy combatants. The rest have either been freed, deported or convicted of charges unrelated to terrorism, she said.
“The government took this law and used it to arrest all sorts of people it thought might be linked to terrorism,” said Fellner. “The government was misusing this law as a form of preventative detention.”
A Department of Justice spokesman defended the practice.
“Critics of law enforcement fail to recognize that material witness statutes are designed with judicial oversight safeguards, and they’re critical to aiding criminal investigations from organized crimes rackets to human trafficking,” said spokesman Kevin Madden. “The Department of Justice uses these statutes very carefully.”
Many of the men were held in solitary confinement in federal detention facilities, the report said. Many were not told why they were arrested and denied prompt access to an attorney and were held in high security facilities, where in some cases they were physically abused, the report said.
“They treated us like professional terrorists,” Tarek Omar, an Egyptian arrested as a material witness, said in the report. “They didn’t let us speak, they didn’t let us ask why we were in detention. I never knew for how long we would stay in jail. … I didn’t even know why I was in jail.”
Ayub Ali Khan of India, who was arrested as a material witness on Sept. 12, 2001, said he was kept in a small, constantly lit cell, where guards would bang on the door every few minutes all night.
“They told me, ‘You won’t ever see your family. You’re going to die here,”‘ he said in the report.
The U.S. government has apologized to 13 for wrongfully detaining them, the report said.
The 101-page report is the first to pull together numerous details of the men’s detentions, Fellner said.
A third were held at least two months, some were imprisoned for more than six months and one spent more than a year in jail, the report said.