February 19, 2002
Jordanian Detainee Testifies On Abuse
By Steve Fainaru
NEW YORK, -- A Jordanian student testified in federal court today that law enforcement agents subjected him to physical abuse and harassment during a three-week, four-prison odyssey following his arrest as a material witness in the investigation into the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
The student, Osama Awadallah, 21, said that, in one instance, a New York prison guard shoved him handcuffed into a chair, causing his hand to bleed. In another, he said, a guard grabbed him by the hair and forced him to face the American flag, telling him: "This is America." While being held at an Oklahoma City facility, Awadallah said, a guard pelted him in the head with his own shoes and threatened to kill him.
The testimony concluded a four-day hearing into allegations that Awadallah was denied due process before and after his detention Sept. 21. Awadallah is charged with two counts of perjury for allegedly lying to a New York grand jury about whether he knew one of the hijackers, Khalid Almihdhar.
A federal judge in Manhattan, Shira A. Scheindlin, called the hearing last month after ruling that Awadallah "may have been the victim of coercion and intimidation." If the judge finds that Awadallah's allegations have merit, she may suppress some or all of the evidence, possibly leading the government to drop the perjury charges against him.
FBI agents had testified that Awadallah was cooperative, signing consent forms for searches and willingly accompanying agents to the bureau's San Diego office after his name and phone number were discovered in a car abandoned by the hijackers at Dulles International Airport. An FBI polygraph expert, J. Antonio Falcon, testified Saturday that Awadallah flunked a voluntary lie detector test in which he was asked whether he had advance knowledge about the terrorist attacks.
Awadallah, who has acknowledged meeting one of the hijackers, Nawaf Alhazmi, "35 or 40 times," denied today having any knowledge of the attacks.
A slightly built man with short, dark hair, a thin beard and glasses, Awadallah said agents frightened him into cooperating with the investigation soon after he returned to his apartment Sept. 20 after an English class at a community college. Although FBI agents testified that only a few agents were present when he was first approached, Awadallah said he was surrounded by "15 to 20 agents" in the parking lot.
After his arrest, Awadallah testified, he was mistreated several times. At a San Bernardino, Calif., jail he said he was forced to undergo a strip search in sight of two or three female guards, a violation of his Islamic faith. In another instance, after repeatedly knocking on his cell door to request properly blessed food, he said a guard twisted his arm and forced his head to the floor, telling him, " 'Don't bang on the door. We'll tell you when we can bring you food.' "
Awadallah was later transferred to a federal prison in Oklahoma City. There, he said, he was strip-searched again. When a guard went to return his clothes to him, Awadallah said, "He was saying bad words on me and on Muslims and about my prophet." Awadallah said the guard threatened to kill him, then threw Awadallah's shoes at his head, striking him.
On Oct. 1, Awadallah was flown to New York along with approximately 100 other prisoners, he said. Before one pretrial hearing, he said, Metropolitan Correctional Center guards kicked his manacled ankles to force him to walk faster and pinched his arms and neck, causing bruises. An FBI agent, William R. Plunkett, said he saw a bruise on Awadallah's biceps during a pretrial hearing Oct. 4.
On another occasion, he said, a guard escorting him to his cell kicked his feet apart while he was still in shackles.
"He grabbed my hair and put my face facing the American flag," Awadallah said. "He said, 'This is America,' and then he took me to my cell."
During cross examination, Awadallah said he could not name any of the guards who abused him. But he told a prosecutor, Robin Baker, that he could identify the guard who pulled his hair and forced him to face the flag because the guard had an American flag tattooed on his hand and wrist.
"I'll never forget him," Awadallah said.
Copyright © 2002, Washington Post Company. All rights reserved.
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