Abdullah al Kidd was on his way to Saudi Arabia to work on a doctorate in Islamic studies last year when he was arrested as a material witness in a terrorism case, says the New York Times. “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.” 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. Sixteen months after his arrest, a court said he was free to resume his life. He lost his scholarship, he moves furniture for a living, and his marriage has fallen apart.
About 60 other men have been held in terrorism cases under the federal material witness law since the Sept. 11 attacks, say Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union. Critics say the government has radically reinterpreted what it means to be a material witness. These days, people held as material witnesses in terrorism investigations are often not called to testify against others; instead, they may be charged with crimes themselves. They lack protections like the rule that suspects in custody be informed of their Miranda rights. They often are held for long periods in the same harsh conditions as those suspected of very serious crimes. Ronald Carlson, a law professor at the University of Georgia, said, “The law was designed to hold Mr. A, the material witness, to testify about a crime committed by Mr. B, the suspect. 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 Justice Department official disagreed.