Magazine article Newsweek

Exclusive: A Sharp New Look at 'Material Witness' Arrests

Magazine article Newsweek

Exclusive: A Sharp New Look at 'Material Witness' Arrests

Article excerpt

Byline: Michael Isikoff

Since 9/11, the Justice Department has used a little-known legal tactic to secretly lock up at least 70 terror suspects--almost all of them Muslim men--and hold them without charges as "material witnesses" to crimes, in some cases for months. A report to be released this week by two civil-liberties groups finds nearly 90 percent of these suspects were never linked to any terrorism acts, resulting in prosecutors and FBI agents issuing at least 13 apologies for wrongful arrest.

The post-9/11 decision to aggressively use "material witness" warrants to detain suspects has been defended by Justice officials as a legitimate tool to root out possible terror cells. (A federal law, though used sparingly in the past, permits detention of witnesses who might have "material" info about a crime--even with no evidence they committed any crimes themselves.) The practice has been shrouded. Citing national security, Justice has refused to disclose virtually any info about these cases, not even figures on how many have been detained. By combing court records and interviewing defense lawyers, researchers for Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union say they have assembled the most comprehensive look yet at the practice--and conclude it may have produced the most civil-liberties abuses of any post-9/11 policy. Out of the 70 "material witness" arrests the groups were able to document, only seven suspects ended up charged with terror-related crimes. …

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