NEW YORK (AP) -- A judge earned the wrath of federal authorities and the praise of civil liberties activists by calling the imprisonment of material witnesses in the government's terrorism probe unconstitutional.
The ruling by U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin could have far-reaching implications for anti-terrorism efforts since dozens of people have been jailed under similar circumstances since the Sept. 11 attacks.
Scheindlin's decision was hailed as "a brave and bold" step by constitutional lawyer Floyd Abrams, while Attorney General John Ashcroft called it "an anomaly."
Scheindlin threw out perjury charges against Osama Awadallah, 21, a college student in El Cajon, Calif., who was accused of lying about knowing two of the Sept. 11 hijackers.
Awadallah was held as a material witness in a grand jury investigation and spent 83 days in prison before being released on bail.
Scheindlin said federal law does not permit such detentions for grand jury probes.
The judge wrote that "imprisoning a material witness for a grand jury investigation raises a serious constitutional question under the Fourth Amendment," which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures.
Ashcroft responded that the roundup of material witnesses after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks was constitutionally sound and that the opinion of "one trial judge in New York represents an anomaly."
"The department's use of material witness warrants is fully consistent with the law and long-standing practice. Numerous other judges have authorized the use of material witness warrants in the settings that we have been using them, and the use of such warrants has been validated at the appellate level," Ashcroft said.
By contrast, Rachel Ward, a lawyer with Amnesty International, called the judge's ruling a "welcome step forward."
The human rights organization criticized the government's secrecy in a recent report on post-Sept. 11 detentions. "It's a matter of grave concern because it creates a lack of public accountability," Ward said.
First Amendment lawyer Abrams agreed, saying the judge's ruling represented "a brave and bold reaffirmation of core Constitutional principles."
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