Justice And Accountability By Inches
After 9/11, among the many deprivations of civil liberties and violations of federal and international law, Attorney General of the United States John Ashcroft gave the FBI the power to detain and interrogate thousands of Muslim-Americans across the country as "material witnesses" without charges. We know little about the number of people detained, the nature of the interrogations and the extent of the abuse heaped on the prisoners. We do know, based on Ashcroft's own words, that this policy sought to pre-emptively detain Muslim-Americans suspected by the Bush Administration of future acts of terrorism or extremism, despite not having any evidence required to charge the suspects.
Yesterday, a federal appeals court panel, composed of two Bush 43 appointees and a Reagan appointee, allowed a case to go forward that would hold John Ashcroft liable for violating one detainee's Constitutional rights under the 4th and 5th Amendments.
The court found that a man who was detained as a witness in a federal terrorism case can sue Ashcroft for allegedly violating his constitutional rights. Abdullah al-Kidd, a U.S. citizen and former University of Idaho student, filed the lawsuit against Ashcroft and other officials in 2005, claiming his civil rights were violated when he was detained as a material witness for two weeks in 2003.
He said the investigation and detention not only caused him to lose a scholarship to study in Saudi Arabia, but cost him employment opportunities and caused his marriage to fall apart.
He argued that his detention exemplified an illegal government policy created by Ashcroft to arrest and detain people -- particularly Muslim men and those of Arab decent -- as material witnesses if the government suspected them of a crime but had no evidence to charge them [...]
''Sadly, however, even now, more than 217 years after the ratification of the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, some confidently assert that the government has the power to arrest and detain or restrict American citizens for months on end, in sometimes primitive conditions, not because there is evidence that they have committed a crime, but merely because the government wishes to investigate them for possible wrongdoing, or to prevent them from having contact with others in the outside world,'' Judge Milan D. Smith Jr. wrote. ''We find this to be repugnant to the Constitution and a painful reminder of some of the most ignominious chapters of our national history.''
You can read the 9th Circuit's opinion in the case, including the circumstances Abdullah al-Kidd found himself in back in 2003. Al-Kidd, a Muslim convert of African-American descent, planned a flight to Saudi Arabia to study on a law scholarship at a Saudi university. He was arrested at the airport under the material witness statute on a separate case, held for 16 days in detention centers in Virginia and Idaho, strip-searched on multiple occasions, and after several interrogations, eventually released. He was never called as a witness in the case on which he was arrested (a case where the individual was acquitted), nor has he been charged with any crime or called in on any other proceeding.
The ruling basically states that Ashcroft is liable for an unconstitutional policy that purposely violated the rights of al-Kidd, and by association thousands of other potential defendants, using the material witness statute just to hold anyone he fancied. If it survives appeal, the government will have to release all documents pertaining to the material witness policy under Ashcroft.
Glennzilla says the impact of this is to show the illegality and immorality of a preventive detention policy - one which this Administration might assert later this year. I agree with that, but I think its impact is slightly different. What it shows is that there are so many people whose lives have been touched - in some cases irreparably - by the terror practices of the Bush regime that there will be no limit to the actions to seek justice and accountability. The suits will continue, one by one, and the rulings made, over and over, and out of the thousands, at least one will find a crack. A legal hole in the framework of official secrecy and efforts by the executive branch to shut down the judiciary. And that hole will beget more holes. The groups and defendants striving for accountability will not stop because they rest on the principle of equal justice under the law, and to give up would signal the effective end of the American system.
Under the Bush Administration, officials in the highest levels of government committed heinous crimes, crimes to which they are only beginning to be held to account. The effort by the Obama Administration to indemnify those officials for those crimes just won't work. Little by little, good men and women with the law on their side will probe and appeal and file suit, and we will see justice. It's only a matter of time.