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Supreme Court: US Muslim cannot sue Ashcroft for 2003 detention ordeal

Former Attorney General John Ashcroft is entitled to qualified immunity and cannot be sued by an American Muslim detained under harsh conditions in 2003, the US Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.

By Staff writer / May 31, 2011

In this Feb. 14 file photo, Abdullah al-Kidd is seen in Los Angeles.The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that former Attorney General John Ashcroft cannot be personally sued over his role in the arrest of an American Muslim who was jailed for 16 days under harsh conditions by US counterterrorism agents but never charged with a crime.

Damian Dovarganes/AP/File


An American Muslim who was jailed for 16 days under harsh conditions by US counterterrorism agents but never charged with a crime has lost his bid to hold former Attorney General John Ashcroft legally responsible for the ordeal.

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The US Supreme Court ruled 8 to 0 on Tuesday that Mr. Ashcroft was entitled to the protection of qualified immunity from a resulting lawsuit.

The court also ruled 5 to 3 that Ashcroft’s actions did not violate the protections of the Fourth Amendment against unreasonable seizure. The opinion, in Ashcroft v. Al-Kidd, is the latest in a series of decisions at the high court insulating government officials from constitutional challenges by individuals subjected to aggressive government tactics following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

The court said the former attorney general was shielded by immunity because his actions did not violate clearly established law when he allegedly authorized the preventative detention of terrorism suspects under a statute designed to ensure the testimony of witnesses at a trial.

Critics have charged that the counterterrorism agents used the so-called material witness statute as a pretext to sidestep the more rigorous constitutional requirement of probable cause necessary to obtain a criminal arrest warrant.

Under the material witness statute, authorities do not need to prove evidence of a crime. Rather, they need only prove that the targeted individual possessed information crucial to a trial or grand jury investigation. It allowed agents to quickly arrest terrorism suspects and hold them under harsh conditions to facilitate interrogations and further investigation.

Writing for five members of the court, Justice Antonin Scalia said as long as authorities had valid justification for an individual’s arrest as a material witness, any other pretextual motives of officials were not relevant.

“Efficient and evenhanded application of the law demands that we look to whether the arrest is objectively justified, rather than to the motive of the arresting officer,” Justice Scalia wrote.

The case stems from the March 2003 ordeal of Abdullah al-Kidd.

Mr. Kidd was held for more than two weeks in high-security cells in Virginia, Oklahoma, and Idaho, subject to repeated strip searches and routinely shackled, before a judge allowed his release.

Kidd had earlier been questioned by FBI agents and had cooperated fully in a visa fraud investigation against a fellow Muslim student in Idaho. But the agents never asked Kidd prior to his arrest whether he would be willing to appear voluntarily as a witness. Instead, they waited until he was about to board a plane for Saudi Arabia and a religious pilgrimage to Mecca.

He was treated like a criminal. Federal agents led him through the airport terminal in handcuffs and detained him in a series of maximum-security lockups.

The material witness warrant used to justify the Kidd’s detention contained substantial errors. It said Kidd was booked on a one-way, first-class flight to Saudi Arabia. (He held a round-trip coach ticket.) It also said Kidd’s testimony was crucial in the ongoing visa fraud investigation in Idaho.

Despite the aggressive actions taken by the government, Kidd was never called as a witness in the visa fraud case or any other case. Nor was he charged with a crime.


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