Afghan Men Tricked Into U.S. Trip, Detained
Saturday, October 10, 2009
For Ziaulhaq, an Afghan driver who had never ventured outside the borders of his war-torn country, the prospect of a trip to the United States seemed like the adventure of a lifetime. He pleaded with his bosses at a contracting company near the U.S. air base at Bagram to include him on the whirlwind trip to Columbus, Ohio.
But the all-expenses-paid travel -- billed as a conference to honor Afghan businesses -- turned out to be an elaborate ruse to draw Ziaulhaq and two co-workers to the United States. Prosecutors wanted them here as witnesses in a bribery case against U.S. servicemen and some Afghan contractors.
And what began as a celebration in the summer of 2008 has become an agonizing extended stay for Ziaulhaq, who is not accused of any crime but has been forced to stay thousands of miles away from his sick wife and six children at home. Ziaulhaq and two countrymen have spent more than a year confined to a hotel in a drab industrial area near Chicago's sooty Midway Airport.
Their saga highlights anew the power of a controversial U.S. statute that allows prosecutors to hold people, without suspicion or criminal charges, as material witnesses in ongoing investigations. After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist strikes, the Bush Justice Department used the law to round up Muslim men, giving rise to a lawsuit against then-Attorney General John D. Ashcroft that experts say could make its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. And at least one key Senate Democrat has tried, to no avail, to introduce more safeguards into the material witness process.
Authorities say they want Ziaulhaq's testimony in their prosecution of a bribery scheme at Bagram, an Air Force base 27 miles north of Kabul, in which servicemen accepted kickbacks from Afghan contractors. The servicemen, according to prosecutors, packed the cash in boxes that they sent home by way of the U.S. Postal Service.
But the little-noticed case has been beset by delays and confusion. It has drawn increasingly sharp complaints from lawyers and an Afghan diplomat who say that Ziaulhaq, 39, is a casualty in the U.S. government's efforts to crack down on corruption and military contracting fraud in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Justice Department officials declined to comment on the bribery case, but they noted that the lengthy detention was approved by a federal judge.
Ziaulhaq, a slender former veterinary student with a scraggly black beard, came to work as an office aide and a part-time driver for the contracting company because of family ties. He says he had no contact with the military and knows nothing about the case.
"I made him available to both sides and he doesn't know anything," said Michael J. Falconer, a court-appointed attorney for Ziaulhaq, who uses just one name. "Unless there's some surprise waiting in the wings, he won't be a material witness because he's got nothing to say that's material. . . . This poor guy just got swept up in the mess."
Ziaulhaq and his confederates -- Bashir Ahmad, 30, and Kiomars Mohammad Rafi, 27 -- had been employees of companies that provided concrete security barricades and other materials to the U.S. military at Bagram. Now they spend their days attending prayer services and cooking in their small kitchenette of their hotel, where monthly rates range from $2,000 to $3,000. The hotel sits next to a $3 carwash and across the street from an industrial strip occupied by discount-store distribution centers.
They rarely venture out and are subjected to nightly curfews and calls from probation officers. Prosecutors secured court permission to detain the men as flight risks, arguing that they might never return for trials if they were allowed to go home. A few months ago, however, the Afghans were released from electronic monitoring.
At the same time, some of the men who have been indicted in the case have successfully petitioned a judge for permission to travel to the gym, study English and attend a funeral and a family reunion in Wisconsin, court records reflect.