Four years after Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) launched a campaign to stop the misuse of the material witness statute to detain people indefinitely, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has ruled the practice “repugnant to the Constitution.”
In 2005, our report Witness to Abuse revealed how the Bush administration was using the material witness law to hold suspects in prison without any evidence that they committed a crime—claiming, pretextually, that they may have had information about other cases.
Abdullah al-Kidd, a US citizen on his way to study in Saudi Arabia, was one such person detained under the material witness law. He was arrested in Washington’s Dulles Airport, held in a high-security jail for 16 days, and, once released, was required to report to probation officers and live under highly restrictive conditions for more than a year—even though he was not implicated in any crime, had cooperated with the authorities, and was not a flight risk.
The ACLU brought suit on behalf of al-Kidd, challenging the government’s policy of using the material witness statute to detain and interrogate people it lacked evidence to charge. In September, the appellate court ruled in favor of al-Kidd.
The ruling not only sets meaningful limits on detention, reaffirming constitutional protections, but also finds that former US Attorney General John Ashcroft can be held liable for the abuses al-Kidd endured.