Before Tony Oulai stepped out of a government car on Saturday at Orlando International Airport, an immigration agent unlocked his handcuffs and slipped them off his wrists.

It had been 422 days since Oulai, a pilot from a prominent West African family, was arrested with flight manuals and a stun gun in the federal campaign to detain suspected terrorists after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. It was 359 days since an immigration judge had ordered him deported for the routine violation of overstaying his student visa. But Oulai -- the first material witness in the terrorism probe to speak publicly about his experiences -- was finally on his way to his native Ivory Coast.

With a pair of Immigration and Naturalization Service officers at his side, he flew from Orlando to Washington Dulles International Airport. As darkness fell, he was put on a United Airlines plane for Amsterdam, where he would catch another for home. Yet in his final minutes on American soil, the U.S. government -- as it had repeatedly -- surprised Oulai and his advocates again.

Oulai's departure had been delayed a month by a coup attempt in the Ivory Coast. The INS had told his attorney that, as a detainee from the terrorism probe -- even one who had been cleared of suspicion -- Oulai required U.S. escorts on his flights home, but that the political instability made such travel impossible. In the end, a senior Ivorian diplomat persuaded the INS to release Oulai by agreeing to take the rare step of chaperoning the trip himself. Now, he was waiting at the arranged gate.

Oulai, meanwhile, climbed into Seat 23C. His INS deportation officer shook his hand and said, "Mr. Tony Oulai, you are a free man" -- and then left the plane.

As Oulai had his first sense of freedom, the diplomat was still looking for him: The INS, without notice, had deposited the former material witness on a different flight.

A Dozen Jails

The glitch that left Oulai unescorted was, according to the INS, the result of a "miscommunication." It was one of many unexpected turns his case took over the past 14 months -- some of them never fully explained -- that prolonged his detention. In all, he passed through a dozen jails and before seven federal judges and was shuttled between the custody of the U.S. Marshals Service and the INS.

Oulai's deportation order was issued last Nov. 15 -- and followed quickly by a warrant designating him as a material witness, alleged to have information crucial to the terrorism investigation. With his case enshrouded in official secrecy at the time, the government never made clear what it believed that Oulai, a Catholic black African who had lived in the United States since 1988, could contribute to the massive probe of Muslim extremism.

It was during this time that Oulai began a series of interviews with The Washington Post.

After three months, federal prosecutors filed a private court document acknowledging there was no evidence that he was involved in any terrorist activity. But just after dropping the material-witness warrant, they charged Oulai with a seldom-prosecuted felony: making a false statement to a federal official. The charge was the government's last legal basis for holding him in custody.

As he flew over the Atlantic Ocean Saturday night, Oulai realized that he was wearing the same double-breasted suit and blue shirt he had worn during his trial in August, when he became a convicted felon.

The charge stemmed from the first day of his detention -- Sept. 14, 2001, three days after the terrorist hijackings -- when he was arrested at Jacksonville's airport while trying to fly home to Los Angeles. He was accused of telling INS agents, who questioned him at the airport, that he was living in the United States legally, when in fact his visa had expired.

Nine months later, his trial would hinge on two central questions concerning what had taken place the day of his arrest: Had Oulai invoked his legal rights against self-incrimination before INS agents arrived to question him? And had he truly told them he was living lawfully in the United States?

At a pretrial hearing, the FBI and INS maintained he had not clearly invoked those rights, but the picture that emerged at his trial was murkier. An FBI agent, Robert Merta, testified that Oulai had refused to sign a form waiving his rights and that Merta had related that fact to a pair of INS agents when they arrived a few hours later.

As for what Oulai told the officials about his legal status, the INS agents' testimony varied during the trial. The agents testified that Oulai had said he was a "lawful permanent resident," that he had replied "yes" when asked if he were, and that he had replied simply that he had once obtained a visa through an immigration lottery for a green card.

U.S. District Judge Harvey E. Schlesinger found Oulai guilty. At his sentencing in early September, however, Schlesinger said he already had served enough time. By then, Oulai's attorney Wade M. Rolle pointed out, he had been in custody twice the maximum time set under federal guidelines for his crime. That day, an INS official told the judge that Oulai would leave for the Ivory Coast within perhaps a week.

But once again, his case was unexpectedly protracted.

Rebel Outbreak Delays Return

Oulai was transferred immediately to Clay County Jail, less than an hour south of Jacksonville, and for the next few weeks isolated in a section usually reserved for violent offenders. One afternoon, Rolle arrived to visit and was incensed to be, first, told that he could not visit his client and then, for the first time in his career, frisked.

When Rolle and Oulai's brother and sister in the United States complained that the government still was treating him like a terrorist, officials from the jail and the INS traded blame.

Meanwhile, travel documents prepared by Ivory Coast officials for Oulai's deportation hearing last November had expired and had to be renewed. Unbeknownst to Oulai, his deportation was scheduled for Oct. 2.

Then Ivorian rebels attempted a coup. The government did not topple, but the rebels continued to fight in parts of the country, and the U.S. government issued travel restrictions.

"Put me on a . . . plane and send me home," Oulai said last month in a telephone conversation from jail. "Don't tell me you are keeping me here for my safety."

In Washington, officials at the Ivory Coast embassy agreed. The unrest, they reasoned, was hundreds of miles from the city of Abidjan, where flights continued to arrive from the United States every day.

Finally, Charles Koffi, the embassy's first counselor, flew to Florida and confronted Nigel Jason, Oulai's deportation officer. According to sources familiar with their conversation, Jason first told Koffi that Oulai and the required escorts simply could not travel to the Ivory Coast. Why then, Koffi asked, had the embassy received INS requests that very month for travel documents to allow the deportation of three other Ivorian citizens, unaffiliated with the terrorism probe?

By the end of the meeting, the INS and the embassy had agreed that Koffi personally would accompany Oulai home -- the agreement that went unfulfilled at Dulles.

Trying to Let Things Go

Within five minutes of Oulai's departure on the United flight, Koffi took off on a KLM Airlines plane that was also bound for Amsterdam. They met Sunday morning at an airport gate during the stopover.

Yesterday, an INS official who attributed the missed Dulles rendezvous to a "miscommunication" said the diplomat had "booked a separate flight, not realizing we had bought a United flight." The official said the mistake was not discovered until the last minute, at which point INS agents decided to allow Oulai to travel unescorted to Amsterdam, rather than postpone the trip for another few days. Augustin Douoghui, a legal representative for the embassy, said the INS explanation "doesn't sound plausible." Koffi "wouldn't have known to go to KLM on his own."

As for Oulai, he learned that he would be traveling alone just before his flight took off. "Freedom," he thought. But before he left Orlando, INS agents fingerprinted him for a final time. They required him to sign a pledge that, unless the U.S. attorney general grants permission, he will not return to the United States for 10 years.

By Sunday, relatives and news crews were waiting for him to walk into the passenger lounge at Abidjan's airport. Instead, he was led through a back door. He wore sunglasses, but when his family was brought to see him, they saw his tears nonetheless.

His mother, the widow of a military hero from the country's founding in the 1960s, and his siblings, including a member of the nation's parliament, have found a house for him already, but Oulai said yesterday that he was not ready to live by himself. Speaking by telephone from a sister's home, Oulai said he had job offers, either with the Ivorian air force or a new national airline. But he is not yet ready to work.

Rolle, his attorney in Jacksonville, said yesterday that he planned to pursue an appeal of the conviction, unless Oulai instructs him to stop. Today, Oulai has been summoned to a meeting with senior Ivorian government leaders.

Yesterday, jet-lagged and worn from the months in custody, he sounded tired. "In my mind, I still think I am in jail," he said. "Although physically you are free, it's going to take a little while for the subconscious to let certain things go."

As he emerged yesterday morning from a bedroom in his sister's house, he was confused and a little pained to see what his 70-year-old mother had chosen to wear: a white T-shirt lettered on the front with "U.S.A."

Tony Oulai, a Catholic from the Ivory Coast, was held for over a year after being arrested and named a material witness in the Sept. 11 attacks.