Jordanian immigrant Osama Awadallah was acquitted of federal charges Friday that he lied to a grand jury investigating the September 11 attacks. In a Democracy Now! exclusive, Awadallah joins us live in our firehouse studio to talk about his arrest, detention and much more. We also discuss the specifics of the case with his attorney, Sarah Kunstler. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: On Friday, Jordanian immigrant Osama Awadallah was acquitted of federal charges that he lied to a grand jury investigating the September 11th attacks. Ten days after the attacks, Awadallah, who was then a student at Grossmont College outside San Diego, was taken into custody and held as a material witness. Agents detained Awadallah after they found a scrap of paper with his name and telephone number in a car at Dulles National Airport in Washington, D.C. The car belonged to Nawaf al-Hazmi, one of the 9/11 hijackers. Osama Awadallah spent much of the next 20 days in solitary confinement, where he was treated as a high security risk. He was released on bail in November of 2001 as he awaited trial.
Awadallah’s case was thrown out once, reinstated by a federal appeals court, then delayed for almost a year while prosecutors tried unsuccessfully to have the judge removed because of claims of bias. When the case finally reached trial earlier this year, the jury ended in a deadlock. Until Friday, Osama Awadallah faced the possibility of 10 years of prison and deportation. He joins us in the studio now, along with Sarah Kunstler, an attorney on the case.
And we welcome you both to Democracy Now!
SARAH KUNSTLER: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: How did it feel to have those verdicts of not guilty repeated over and over again on Friday? How many times?
OSAMA AWADALLAH: It was 27 times of saying not guilty. And each one after another was just an undescribable feeling of how, you know, justice is being done on my case. Well, I cannot describe my feeling, but I knew I were innocent, and I knew in this great country that justice system is good enough in order for me to be acquitted. And the jury were great, and that happened. I just, you know, was so happy and was waiting for that, you know, final—final verdict of the 27th. You know, when they said not guilty, it’s like, you know, mountains were removed from my back, and it’s just like a newborn new life to me.
AMY GOODMAN: What did you do next? Was your family in the audience?
OSAMA AWADALLAH: My father was in the audience, was the first one that I greeted and hugged. And then I greeted my lawyers and just waited so I can go and thank the jury and, you know, speak with them and see how they felt. And it was just amazing.
AMY GOODMAN: Sarah, this was not the first trial. Can you explain the series of trials?
SARAH KUNSTLER: Well, this case was—initially, the indictments were thrown out by Judge Shira Scheindlin. We went to the first trial in May of—or April of 2005. And—
AMY GOODMAN: And the indictment at the time was?
SARAH KUNSTLER: The indictment was reinstated. It was two counts of perjury with 27 specifications. And in 2005, the government appealed a pretrial ruling and stalled trial basically right after jury selection. It took another year for that appeal to be resolved. And in May of—April of 2006, we proceeded to trial again. In that trial, it was 10 to one to convict Mr. Awadallah. It was a hung jury, with one holdout juror who had reasonable doubt as to his guilt.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, explain the perjury charges. Why originally was Osama arrested and charged with what? What is the whole story of the grand jury, for those who aren’t familiar with it?
SARAH KUNSTLER: He was arrested—well, he was originally questioned because an old phone number of his was found in a vehicle belonging to one of the hijackers who flew into the Pentagon. It was actually a phone number that hadn’t been his for over a year and had only been registered in his name for a two- or three-month period a year before. He was brought in for questioning and, shortly after, arrested on a material witness warrant, which the government can use to detain people who aren’t—when there isn’t probable cause, when they aren’t charged with crimes, solely to bring them to testify before grand juries when it’s determined that there is a probability that they won’t go on their own voluntarily on subpoena.
So he was brought to New York, treated as not just a high-risk—he was treated as a high-risk inmate and kept in solitary confinement, subject to ill treatment, the hysteria of 9/11. The guards who held him in custody didn’t know whether he was—that he was a material witness. They didn’t know if he had ties to the hijackers. They didn’t know if he was partially responsible for 9/11. All they knew was that he was being detained in connection with the 9/11 investigation.
AMY GOODMAN: So, Osama, how did they treat you?
OSAMA AWADALLAH: Well, you want to take it one period at a time. On September 20th, was coming back from my school, heading to my home to take a rest, and I have another class that I want to go back to. And here, I was surprised with six or seven cars parked in front of my apartment. Twenty FBI agents approach me, and it’s like—it’s like if I have done something that—I was shocked, you know, for all these people to come, and they start, you know, questioning me: "Are you Osama Awadallah?" and all these questions. And I showed them my ID, and they said, "OK, we need to talk to you about—you know, ask you a few questions." Then, I said, "OK. Well, I’ll just go to my apartment, do something, and, you know, come out." And actually, I wanted to go and use the bathroom. And the FBI agent refused to close the door on myself. And that’s—in my religion, it’s very important, it’s very serious, that—you know, when you are doing some private stuff, no one intervene or anything. And that was the—
AMY GOODMAN: He refused to allow you to close the bathroom door.
OSAMA AWADALLAH: To close the door, yes. And that was the spark or the first incident that made me start to be confused and, you know, afraid. And all these, you know, surroundings even around me since—from since that time until the last day of grand jury, which is October 15th, it was just a series of mistreatment, unbelievable, ridiculous treatment, in a way that a human being cannot be treated. Then we went to the FBI office. They questioned me for about eight hours, constantly.
AMY GOODMAN: Did you have a lawyer present?
OSAMA AWADALLAH: No, I didn’t have a lawyer. They told me it was going to be a short time. "You don’t need anyone to be with you. You’re going to be fine. Just, you know, a few questions, then you will go home." I said, "That’s fine," you know, and remember, at that time, I’m 20 years old. You know, my English at that time was not like when I’m speaking with you right now; it’s completely different. You know, it’s been only two years in the country, or year and a half. And—
AMY GOODMAN: Was there an Arabic speaker there?
OSAMA AWADALLAH: No. There wasn’t an interpreter nor an Arabic speaker. They questioned me all day until 10:00, 11:00, midnight. And I was so exhausted that I just wanted to go home. I even was going to answer whatever they want just in order just to get home and rest. My family didn’t know where I am. Everyone was worried. My community were looking for me. And I came at 11:00, I went to my brother’s. And there, I told them what happened with me. And the second day, the FBI—well, actually, on that day, on September 20th, they asked me that they want to come the next day to continue questioning. I said, "Well, I’ve just said everything that you want, you know, I have. Why this other day?" They said, "Well, there’s a couple of questions we need to verify." I said, "OK."
Then, the second day at 6:00 in the morning, they came to my apartment, and I drove with them. I told them it was a Friday, and there was the Friday service. And I told them, "I have to catch my Friday service, so I hope this won’t take much time." They said, "No, no problem." Then we went there. They started confronting me with things more—you know, in a more high tone than the previous day, and they start to jump on me. This time, there were four people who’s asking me questions, not like one. You know, it’s like you have a person there, and you have four people asking you questions at the same time. So you have to answer. All this pressure and stress that, you know, came in. Then, at the end, they said, "You know what? I guess you’re going to go to New York right now. Right now, we’re going to put you on a plane and ship you to New York, just like this." And from there, continued—went to MCC jail and then Oklahoma—I think San Bernardino Sheriff jail. Then they took me to Oklahoma jail. Then I ended up with New York. And until then, that’s all that happened.
AMY GOODMAN: And they were questioning you about your knowledge of two of the hijackers.
OSAMA AWADALLAH: Correct. Well, not about two of the hijackers, general questions about, you know, who do you know in the community. Yes, there were some specific questions about people that—regarding two of the hijackers, but that came later, more extensively. But the beginning was more of generic questions: Whom do you talk to? Who’s your—who are your friends? Do you know these people? Do you know if, you know, they were doing or intending to do anything like that?
AMY GOODMAN: When you were brought before the grand jury, you were in handcuffs?
OSAMA AWADALLAH: Yes, I was.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to break and then come back. We are speaking with Osama Awadallah and his attorney, Sarah Kunstler. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: In this exclusive interview, we’re talking with Osama Awadallah, the Jordanian student who was acquitted on Friday of federal charges that he lied to a grand jury investigating the September 11th attacks. He joins us in studio along with his attorney, Sarah Kunstler. So you were handcuffed before the grand jury. One of the jurors, after the trial on Friday, after the verdict was read, said they were particularly disturbed about how you were treated. Why were you handcuffed during the grand jury testimony? Were your hands behind your back?
OSAMA AWADALLAH: No, it was—was handcuffed to a chair on the grand jury. But, you know, this came along—I mean, from a long process of using all the shackles and handcuffs. It wasn’t like—you know, this was actually the easiest step I had in terms of handcuffing. But they used to have the three-piece suit, what they call a three-piece suit—where my feet were shackled and my waist connected to my hands.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s called a three-piece suit?
OSAMA AWADALLAH: Correct. And why they handcuffed me in the grand jury? Well, first of all, they treated me as a high-risk inmate. They told me on San Diego that you are a material witness. But that did not come to be true. It came like they treated me as if even I’m one of the hijackers, as if, you know, people who—a person who has so much great danger to the community and to the people around him, as if I am criminal, you know, things like that. And when they took me to the grand jury, they were afraid that I might do something or harm the jurors or the grand jury that were sitting in that room, or I might flee. I mean, I’m surrounding with 10 marshals and handcuffed and been all this solitary confinement all these 20 days, and they still think—and they know I’m a material witness. But because of what happens and the situation we’re around at that time, everyone was angry. And they justified their abuse to me by relating, "Oh, we are—we’re having such a hard time these days, and it’s complete security." And so, it cannot be justified in any way, but that’s what, you know, they did.
AMY GOODMAN: Sarah Kunstler, what does it do to a grand jury when they see the person testifying in handcuffs?
SARAH KUNSTLER: We actually tried to get the indictment dismissed when we found out that Mr. Awadallah was handcuffed in the jury room, on the basis that seeing him in handcuffs prejudiced the grand jury against him, because it made them afraid of him. It made them suspect that he was guilty of something already or capable of violence. You know, it’s terribly prejudicial for a grand jury to see a witness come in in handcuffs. It suggests all sorts of things about that person.
OSAMA AWADALLAH: Let me add up, this handcuffing me to the chair was one of the main reasons that I was answering those weird questions on the grand jury. They had so much distrust in me. That’s one of the reasons—there were other reasons, but this one was also—you know, contributed to me forgetting the answers and being under stress, being nervous and afraid. All these things, they have added up to what I have said in the grand jury at that day. And that’s how the government did it. You know, they played it right, and that’s what happened to them.
AMY GOODMAN: The authorities allege that Osama Awadallah knew Nawaf al-Hazmi, who helped seize the plane that crashed into the Pentagon. But the two perjury counts stem from two statements he made to the grand jury regarding another hijacker, Khalid al-Mihdhar. Explain those charges, Sarah.
SARAH KUNSTLER: Those charges were based on Mr. Awadallah’s inability to recall the second man’s name when he was being questioned in the grand jury. But Mr. Awadallah was able to describe the second man. He was able to accurately recall how many times he had seen the second man, the extent of his relationship with the second man. Unlike—Mr. Awadallah had actually met Nawaf al-Hazmi on several occasions and knew his name.
AMY GOODMAN: You knew him from San Diego, from the mosque?
OSAMA AWADALLAH: Yes.
SARAH KUNSTLER: But he had no interactions with the second man. He had seen him accompanying Nawaf al-Hazmi and may have been introduced to him, but had no—had no personal interactions with this other person.
AMY GOODMAN: And why did they charge him with perjury? Because of the name, remembering the name?
SARAH KUNSTLER: They charged him with perjury because at one point he had known this other man’s name, and when he appeared before the grand jury after 20 days of being shackled and chained and beaten and abused, when he testified before the grand jury, he was unable to come up with the second man’s name.
AMY GOODMAN: The jury forewoman, Alma Weinstein of Rockland County, said the panel wasn’t convinced the statements at issue in the case were of any importance to the terror probe. Were you surprised by the verdict, Osama?
OSAMA AWADALLAH: Well, I wasn’t surprised so much. Yes, there was some surprise to it, but I knew, myself—I knew I were innocent. And this time, we have changed the way we pick up—we picked up the jury. We were more careful. You know, things of what to ask and how to interact. And, well, and it’s been five years since September 11th. And people will never forget such an event, but I think, I believe, that I would be acquitted in both counts.
I didn’t have a doubt that this couldn’t be happen. I knew it would happen, but I still had some, you know, like fear of, you know, some people might not leave their feelings alone and—regarding September 11th and put this away and just try the case solely on what happened on that days, without just relating to what happened to, you know, feelings and their friends and their experience with September 11. That was my only fear and doubt. But I had a 90 percent belief that the jury will—the indictment will be acquitted.
AMY GOODMAN: And what are your plans now?
OSAMA AWADALLAH: My plans is, now I’m going to continue my master.
AMY GOODMAN: What are you getting a degree in?
OSAMA AWADALLAH: Well, I had a degree our information system. And my master will be a doctor, as a medical doctor. And then maybe get married as soon as possible, and just, you know, look for the best job or find a good job, and just continue into my life.
AMY GOODMAN: And you will stay in this country?
OSAMA AWADALLAH: Absolutely.
AMY GOODMAN: And, Sarah Kunstler, how typical is what happened to Osama Awadallah?
SARAH KUNSTLER: You know, unfortunately, I think it’s more typical than we would like to believe or would want. You know, it’s—I think the test of our civility is how we treat people in those moments after tremendous tragedies like September 11th. And it’s at those times when maintaining your—when treating people well and giving people the presumption of innocence and not criminalizing people because of who they know or how they look or what they believe is most important. And if Osama’s case teaches us anything, it’s that we need to be careful, very careful, on those moments, on how we pass judgments on other people and how we treat them.
AMY GOODMAN: Sarah Kunstler, thanks very much for being with us. Sarah also is the daughter of William Kunstler, the famed attorney, late attorney, also based in New York. And, Osama Awadallah, did you want to add one more thing?
OSAMA AWADALLAH: Yes, I just wanted to say another thing. This case was very important not just only for me, for thousands and thousands of people who have been through my situations. You know, I’ve been treated so badly, that bring the image of how our government here in the United States acts with people in such a way, in a harsh way. There were many people in this country waiting for this case. And I hope it would—the government would rethink their—the way they interact with prisoners or material witnesses or those people who have been held up for nothing, you know, just—and I would thank all those people who stood with me, you know, starting from my lawyers, people in my—in San Diego, people in my country. And I would like to thank all of those who prayed for me. And I wish good for everybody, and I wish nothing—such a thing would happen again to anyone else.
AMY GOODMAN: And the advice you would give to someone caught up in the same situation that you were, now that you’ve gone through it all of these years?
OSAMA AWADALLAH: Well, if someone are in my situation, and they are still, I would say, have patience. There are people for you, staying—you know, are outside calling for justice. And also, people have to be careful of whom they’re dealing with. You know, I learned my lessons. And—
AMY GOODMAN: In what way careful who you’re dealing with?
OSAMA AWADALLAH: In what way? In knowing who you deal with. You know, sometimes you might not be able to distinguish between a good person or a bad person. But it’s good also always to be more careful, you know, and just—
AMY GOODMAN: Are you talking about the authorities or people in your community?
OSAMA AWADALLAH: Well, both. Both, especially the authority. I mean, the authority always—I mean, the way it happened with me, they seemed so friendly to me at the beginning, then they turned out to be like monster against me. They come and even testify in my court completely different of what happened, and of what—how they talked to me, how they treated me, especially, you know, those FBI agents that they tried to question me. So, be careful. Always have a lawyer with you. Never, never speak with someone without having someone with you who knows the law and know—everyone should know that he has rights in this country, and he should use them to his best extent.
AMY GOODMAN: Osama Awadallah and attorney Sarah Kunstler, thanks so much for being with us.
SARAH KUNSTLER: Thank you.
OSAMA AWADALLAH: Thank you.