By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 29, 2006
A federal judge in Idaho has ruled that former attorney general John D. Ashcroft can be held personally responsible for the wrongful detention of a U.S. citizen arrested as a "material witness" in a terrorism case.
U.S. District Judge Edward J. Lodge, in a ruling issued late Wednesday, dismissed claims by the Justice Department that Ashcroft and other officials should be granted immunity from claims by a former star college football player arrested at Dulles International Airport in 2003.
Attorneys for the plaintiff in the civil suit, Abdullah al-Kidd, said the decision raises the possibility that Ashcroft could be forced to testify or turn over records about the government's use of the material witness law, a cornerstone of its controversial legal strategy after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Justice Department officials did not respond to telephone messages yesterday seeking comment. A spokeswoman for Ashcroft also did not respond to requests for comment.
Robin Goldfaden, one of Kidd's attorneys at the American Civil Liberties Union, said the case "could be the launching point for more fully documenting how the government is misusing the material witness statute."
The law was intended to give authorities the power to detain witnesses they feared might flee before testifying. But after the Sept. 11 attacks, the government used it to hold 70 men, nearly half of whom were never called to testify in court, according to a study by the ACLU and Human Rights Watch.
Kidd -- a Kansas native who was known as Lavoni T. Kidd before converting to Islam -- was arrested in March 2003 as he prepared to board a flight to Saudi Arabia, where he was planning to pursue a doctorate in Islamic studies. Federal prosecutors claimed he was a flight risk crucial to the prosecution of a fellow University of Idaho student, Sami Omar al-Hussayen.
Kidd was imprisoned for 16 days in three states and then placed under restrictive court supervision for more than a year. But Kidd was never called to testify against Hussayen, who was eventually acquitted of computer-related terrorism charges.
While not deciding on the veracity of Kidd's claims, Lodge, who was appointed to the federal bench in 1989 by President George H.W. Bush, ruled that Ashcroft could be found personally liable in the case because of his role in establishing and enforcing the government's material-witness policies.