Wealthy Frenchman

Thursday, August 17, 2006

The Tyranny of Fear


Abdallah Higazy was on the phone from Cairo. “To describe it as frustrating would be an understatement,” he said, “because you know you’re telling the truth. And you know the people speaking to you have incorrect information about you.”

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Mr. Higazy, the son of a former Egyptian diplomat, was in a room on the 51st floor of the Millenium Hilton Hotel, directly across the street from the World Trade Center. He was a student at the time, having won a scholarship to study computer engineering at Polytechnic University in Brooklyn. The Institute of International Education had arranged for him to stay at the hotel while he looked for permanent housing.

Like everyone else, Mr. Higazy fled the hotel after the planes hit the towers. He left behind his passport and other personal items. When he returned to collect his belongings three months later, he was arrested by the F.B.I. A hotel security guard claimed to have found an aviation radio, which could be used to communicate with airborne pilots, in the safe in Mr. Higazy’s room.

“That’s impossible,” said Mr. Higazy.

It’s a fact, said the F.B.I.

Mr. Higazy was handcuffed, strip-searched and thrown into prison — as a material witness. No one knew what to charge him with. They just knew they wanted to hold him.

Mr. Higazy was all but overwhelmed with fear. “I didn’t sleep that first night,” he told me. “I was shivering, and it wasn’t from the cold.”

Like an accused witch in Salem, Mr. Higazy was dangerously close to being sacrificed on the altar of hysteria. He kept telling authorities he knew nothing about the radio. But the assumption was that he was lying.

As there was no evidence that he had committed a crime, it was considered important that Mr. Higazy confess to something. He said an F.B.I. agent, Michael Templeton, told him during an interview that if he didn’t cooperate, his family in Cairo would be put at the mercy of Egyptian security, which Mr. Templeton would later acknowledge has a reputation for torture. He said the agent also threatened to report that in his “expert opinion” Mr. Higazy was a terrorist.

Fear turned to panic. Mr. Higazy began to search frantically for a story that would satisfy Mr. Templeton. His first few attempts were preposterous. He said he had found the radio outside J&R Music World in lower Manhattan. Then he said he’d stumbled across it on the other side of the Brooklyn Bridge. The story finally decided upon was that he had stolen the radio from the Egyptian Air Force.

He was charged with lying to federal agents — the lie being his initial claim that the radio wasn’t his. Clueless prosecutors stressed in court that Mr. Higazy should be subject to more than 20 years imprisonment.

A month after Mr. Higazy was arrested, a miracle occurred — in the form of a pilot who strolled into the Millenium Hilton Hotel, looking for his radio. The pilot was an American citizen, and thus believable. He had left the radio in his room on the 50th floor, one flight down from Mr. Higazy’s room. Mr. Higazy had been telling the truth all along.

It turned out that the security guard, Ronald Ferry, had been lying. He hadn’t found the radio in Mr. Higazy’s safe. He had made up that story, hoping to steal a bit part in one of the biggest investigations ever. It seems a co-worker had actually found the radio, on a table somewhere. Mr. Ferry was charged with making false statements to the F.B.I. and sentenced to six months of weekends in prison.

Mr. Higazy filed a lawsuit against Mr. Templeton, claiming he had illegally coerced his confession. But an in-house investigation by the F.B.I. found there was no evidence of wrongdoing, and a federal judge — while acknowledging that the confession had been coerced — threw out the suit.

All the authorities have to do nowadays is claim that a case is linked to terror and they can get away with just about anything. The rule of law is succumbing to the tyranny of fear. (There’s no telling how many Abdallah Higazys have been swept up in the so-called war on terror and imprisoned, or worse.)

Jonathan Abady, a lawyer for Mr. Higazy, said an appeal has been filed on his behalf.

Mr. Higazy, who has since married and is now a teacher in Cairo, told me he is angry with Mr. Ferry and Mr. Templeton, but that he’s not bitter. He offered his thanks to those Americans “who stood by me and believed in my innocence.”

David Brooks is off today.


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