3 Afghan men held as witnesses since August '08 are released

By Kari Lydersen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 25, 2009

CHICAGO -- Three Afghan men held in the Chicago area as witnesses for 15 months were released Tuesday, a month after testifying in a case involving Afghan contractors and U.S. service members charged with bribery.

The three men, employees of contracting firms, had been brought to Chicago in August 2008 on the pretense of attending a dinner honoring Afghan businesses. Instead, they were held in hotels, waiting to testify as material witnesses about charges that U.S. service members accepted kickbacks from Afghan contractors at Bagram air base. Three Americans have pleaded guilty.

During an Oct. 21 hearing, the witnesses' testimony appeared to offer little specific insight into the charges. Lawyers question why the men were held for so long at significant expense.

"Two of the three were immaterial and didn't have any relevant and admissible evidence," said Kirby Behre of the Washington firm Paul Hastings, the attorney for Afghan defendant John Ramin.

"It didn't seem like they knew too much," said Michael Falconer, attorney for witness Ziaulhaq, 40, who like many Afghans uses just one name.

Justice Department spokeswoman Gina Talamona said: "We have all along tried to expedite their return to Afghanistan. There are with any of these proceedings different issues that have to be resolved."

She also said the men's October testimony will be used in the trial next year.

At Tuesday's hearing, the men sat with hunched shoulders, looking down, during the several minutes it took for a federal judge to order their release.

The three said they are relieved but uncertain about their futures back home, where work is scarce and people are likely to view them with suspicion after their U.S. stay.

"He's worried people will think he's a spy," Falconer said of his client.

Bashir Ahmad, 30, will return to a child born three months before he came to Chicago. His family has struggled in his absence. "I lost everything; it will be very hard to find a job," he said. Nonetheless, he said, he is thrilled to return home.

"I'm frustrated," said Kiomars Mohammad Rafi, 27, who has a 3-year-old son in Kabul. "My family has been waiting for so long, they are mentally and psychologically devastated."

Ziaulhaq, a former veterinary student, has six children, and his wife has been seriously ill.

The men could talk with their families by phone but were largely confined to hotel rooms in the Chicago suburbs. They were held under a controversial antiterrorism statute that allows the government to detain material witnesses who are not facing charges.

"When I tell people, even lawyers, there's a law that says you can be held in custody for months and months without having committed a crime, they can't believe it," Falconer said.

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