February 16, 2002
Local student's hearing opens
Rights at issue after Sept. 11
By TOBY ECKERT
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE
NEW YORK – A parade of FBI agents testified yesterday that
Grossmont College student Osama Awadallah consented to
searches of his apartment and two cars and voluntarily
submitted to questioning as they investigated his possible ties to Sept. 11 hijackers.
The testimony came during the first day of hearings before a
federal judge into whether Awadallah's rights were violated
during the initial probe and his subsequent arrest and detention
as a "material witness" in the investigation of the attacks.
Awadallah, 21, has not been charged with involvement in the
attacks. But he was charged with twice lying to a grand jury
about whether he was acquainted with one of the San
Diego-linked hijackers who crashed an airliner into the
Federal Judge Shira A. Scheindlin, who ordered the unusual
hearing, has also raised questions about whether prosecutors set a "perjury trap" for Awadallah.
The hearing has pierced some of the secrecy surrounding the
roundup of scores of people, mostly of Middle Eastern origin, in
the days following Sept. 11.
Defense attorneys allege that Awadallah was bullied and
intimidated by FBI agents who did not properly advise him of his
right to refuse interviews, polygraphs and searches.
They also contend that Awadallah was arrested as a material
witness before a warrant was issued by a judge.
Yesterday's testimony centered on the actions of law
enforcement agents who descended on a La Mesa apartment
complex where Awadallah lived. That was Sept. 20, the day
before he was arrested.
Awadallah was sought for questioning after his phone number
was found in a car registered to one of the hijackers, Nawaf
Alhazmi, that was abandoned at Dulles International Airport
outside Washington, D.C.
FBI agents and a San Diego police detective testified yesterday
that Awadallah, a citizen of Jordan living legally in the United
States, agreed to be taken to the San Diego FBI office for
questioning. He also signed consent forms for searches of his
apartment and cars.
FBI Special Agent Brian Rielly said Awadallah carefully read the
first consent form he was given at his apartment and was
specifically informed that he was not under arrest.
"It popped into my mind, and from prior experience, that I
should tell him he was not under arrest," Rielly said.
However, Rielly acknowledged that he did pat down Awadallah
at one point to make sure he had no weapons. And he testified
that Awadallah later revoked one of the car-search consents
after learning that he could refuse.
The car had already been searched by then, however, and agents had seized three Islamic-themed videotapes, telephone numbers and other documents from the car.
A "box cutter-type holder" and a calendar were seized from a
second car belonging to Awadallah, agent Andrew Bedell
Defense attorney Jesse Berman seized on testimony that
Awadallah was not allowed to close the door while he used the
bathroom in his apartment before afternoon prayers, and was
subsequently not allowed to drive himself to the FBI office.
"That's certainly an interference with his freedom and, legally
speaking, he was in custody," Berman told reporters after the
Berman portrayed Awadallah as confused and with a limited
grasp of English.
"They took advantage of him," he said.
Berman said that would become clearer in testimony to come,
raising the possibility that Awadallah himself may testify. The
hearing is expected to last through Monday.
FBI Special Agent Frank J. Teixeira IV, who led the questioning
of Awadallah at the San Diego FBI office, testified that Awadallah was not restrained, that the interview room was not locked and that "we made certain that we told him he was not under arrest."
Awadallah was not advised of his Miranda rights because "it was
not a custodial situation. He voluntarily came to the office,"
Awadallah "spoke English well," but with a "dialect," he said.
During the interview, Awadallah also signed another consent
form allowing for a more thorough search of his cars, Teixeira
The agents said a maximum of 10 officers were at the La Mesa
apartment complex Sept. 20, and that only two or three
approached Awadallah. Berman has claimed that 20 FBI agents
Civil liberties groups are watching the case closely. They say a
ruling in Awadallah's favor could unleash similar legal challenges
by other detainees.
"I think this is the first time a hearing has seen the light of day
concerning these material witnesses," said Awadallah's San Diego lawyer, Randall B. Hamud.