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Supreme Court to hear Ashcroft appeal of US Muslim's detention

A lower court has allowed a suit by an American Muslim, detained without charge in 2003 as a material witness, to proceed against former Attorney General John Ashcroft. The Supreme Court says it will consider Ashcroft's appeal.

By Staff writer / October 18, 2010

Former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft listens intently to a question from a reporter during a press conference about the Patriot Act on Capitol Hill in this 2004 file photo.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters/File

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Washington

The US Supreme Court agreed on Monday to decide whether former Attorney General John Ashcroft can be held personally responsible for the detention and interrogation of an American Muslim who was wrongly suspected of involvement with terrorists.

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Abdullah Al-Kidd, a former football star at the University of Idaho who converted to Islam, was arrested and handcuffed by FBI agents at Dulles International Airport as he was about to fly to Saudi Arabia in 2003. He was held in a high-security jail cell and interrogated.

The warrant that authorized his arrest said nothing of criminal wrongdoing. Federal agents did not possess the probable cause necessary to justify his arrest as a criminal suspect. Instead, they relied on a federal statute that authorizes the temporary detention of a witness to ensure the witness will be available to testify at a trial.

Mr. Kidd was never called to testify at a trial. He was never charged with a crime.

Kidd’s lawyers say federal officials were using the so-called material witness statute as a pretext to imprison and interrogate individuals the authorities suspected might have information about terrorists. They say the alleged policy had two purposes. It was a form of preventative detention, a way to disrupt imagined terror plots without having to demonstrate to a neutral judge proof of an actual terror plot. It also permitted authorities to hold certain suspects –including US citizens like Kidd – in harsh, prisonlike conditions to facilitate coercive interrogations without Miranda warnings or access to a lawyer.

After his release, Kidd filed a lawsuit against Attorney General Ashcroft and other federal officials claiming they violated his constitutional right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures and his right to a fair judicial process before being imprisoned and punished.

Some of those government officials have agreed to pay a settlement to Kidd rather than go forward with a jury trial. Ashcroft is fighting the lawsuit, arguing that the attorney general has immunity from such legal action.

Government lawyers defending Ashcroft say that even if Kidd’s constitutional rights were violated, those rights were not clearly established at the time Kidd was taken into custody. If they weren’t clearly established, Ashcroft is protected by qualified immunity.

A federal judge refused to dismiss Kidd’s lawsuit, and a panel of the Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals voted 2-to-1 to allow the suit against Ashcroft to move forward.

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