The Justice Department has offered its regrets and agreed to pay several hundred thousand dollars to settle a case filed by a U.S. citizen arrested and detained as a material witness in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Following a protracted legal battle, the American Civil Liberties Union on Friday announced the settlement on behalf of Abdullah al-Kidd, a Kansas-born citizen and graduate of the University of Idaho.
“I am pleased the government has finally acknowledged the trouble it put me through and has compensated me for that trouble. I hope no one else has to go through what I went through," al-Kidd said in a statement.
Al-Kidd was arrested by the FBI in 2003 ostensibly so he would testify as a material witness in the trial of a student facing visa fraud charges. He was imprisoned for 16 days, moved to three separate federal detention facilities in three different states, and was sometimes held naked and shackled hand and foot. He was never ultimately called to testify.
His subsequent legal challenges went all the way to the Supreme Court. In an 8-0 decision authored by Justice Antonin Scalia, the court ruled former Attorney General John Ashcroft could not be sued for violating the Fourth Amendment rights of people held as a material witness; even if, as al-Kidd claimed, this was really a pretext.
Nonetheless, in a Jan. 15 letter to al-Kidd that was revealed Friday, federal officials wrote: "The government acknowledges that your arrest and detention as a witness was a difficult experience for you and regrets any hardship or disruption to your life that may have resulted from your arrest and detention."
The U.S. government and an individual FBI agent named as a defendant also agreed to pay al-Kidd a total of $385,000 as part of the settlement.
"The government systematically abused the material witness process after September 11," Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project, said in a statement. "This settlement and the court opinions detailing the government’s unlawful actions will hopefully deter future such abuses."
Critics say Ashcroft authorized federal prosecutors and law enforcement officials to use the material-witness statute to detain individuals with suspected ties to terrorist organizations, even though officials had no intention of calling them as witnesses.
While attending the University of Idaho in the mid-1990s, al-Kidd changed his name from Lavoni T. Kidd and converted to Islam
FBI agents apprehended al-Kidd in March 2003 as he checked in for a flight to Saudi Arabia, where he was going to study. Two days earlier, federal officials had informed a Magistrate Judge that, if al-Kidd boarded his flight, they believed information "crucial" to the prosecution of another man would be lost.