Afghan witness, detained 14 months, finally testifies in bribery case

By Carrie Johnson and Kari Lydersen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 22, 2009

A gaunt Afghan man detained in the United States for 14 months without criminal charges as a witness in a federal bribery case finally told his story Wednesday, disavowing any knowledge of kickbacks that paved the way for contracts at Bagram air base.

Ziaulhaq, 40, flew to the United States in August 2008 for what he thought was a celebration honoring businesses in war-torn Afghanistan. Instead, he told the lawyers assembled in a Chicago courtroom, the invitation was an elaborate ruse by law enforcement agents, who held him in jail for 21 days. He and two countrymen now live in an extended-stay motel in a gritty industrial area near Chicago's Midway Airport, at the government's expense. And lawyers said Wednesday that Ziaulhaq may not be cleared to return home until mid-November.

Wearing a casual black windbreaker, black pants and a white shirt, Ziaulhaq, who uses just one name, spoke for about two hours, with his remarks translated into English. He gestured with his hands while his face, under a scraggly black beard, bore signs of annoyance as the questions from federal prosecutors persisted.

Ziaulhaq and the other two Afghan men have been held indefinitely, though they are not suspected of wrongdoing, under a powerful legal tool known as the material witness statute. That law allows prosecutors to detain people who could give important testimony in criminal cases but pose a flight risk.

After the 2001 terrorist strikes, Justice Department officials in the Bush administration employed the strategy aggressively to round up Muslim men in the United States, igniting a lawsuit against then-Attorney General John D. Ashcroft. In that case, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled that a Muslim man could sue Ashcroft for money damages for allegedly violating his constitutional rights. Justice Department lawyers last week asked the full appeals court to reconsider the ruling.

The Afghan witness case, described earlier this month in The Washington Post, highlights an unusual use of the material witness statute by the Justice Department's antitrust division, which typically pursues allegations of bid-rigging and corporate collusion rather than international intrigue.

On Wednesday, Emily Allen, a lawyer in the antitrust division, asked Ziaulhaq, a clerical assistant and part-time driver for an Afghan construction company, what he knew about kickbacks for construction and trucking work at the air base.

"I have said from the onset till now that I have no knowledge," said Ziaulhaq, who has not seen his sick wife and six children in Afghanistan for more than a year.

Allen asked if he was authorized to engage in financial dealings or make wire transfers without the approval of his employer, and Ziaulhaq replied, "No, I did not have that responsibility."

Three American servicemen targeted by prosecutors in the case have pleaded guilty in connection with accepting tens of thousands of dollars in cash bribes, which they mailed home to Chicago via the U.S. Postal Service. Other defendants include several Afghan contracting companies that allegedly furnished the cash and three Afghan businessmen who ran the companies, including Ziaulhaq's employer.

The government has incurred substantial costs in detaining the three Afghan men. Under questioning from Kirby Behre, a defense attorney for the contractors, Ziaulhaq confirmed an estimate that he had collected between $60,000 and $70,000 in witness fees, incidental payments and hotel expenses from the U.S. government during his detention.

"I don't understand what the problem with this is," Ziaulhaq testified. "I didn't ask to be here. If it was up to me, I would return to my country."

The depositions of other witnesses in the case continue.

Gina Talamona, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department's antitrust division, said in a statement: "The Department is taking the witnesses' depositions and we continue to urge the court to expedite their return to Afghanistan. We hope they can return as soon as possible."

Lydersen reported from Chicago.

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