Benjamin Weiser of the New York Times reports on the case of Abdallah Higazy, from whom an FBI polygrapher coerced a false confession, resulting in Higazy wrongly spending a month in solitary confinement. (This article, re-printed in the International Herald Tribune, was first published in the New York Times on 29 June 2002.) Excerpt:
Innocent Egyptian was jailed in FBI’s Sept. 11 investigation
NEW YORK A federal judge in Manhattan is considering opening an inquiry into how the FBI got a criminal confession from an innocent Egyptian student who was detained in connection with the attack on the World Trade Center, people with knowledge of the case said. The judge, Jed Rakoff, of U.S. District Court, could conduct the inquiry under a rarely invoked authority in which judges are considered supervisors of the grand jury. It was during the grand jury investigation of the Sept. 11 terror attacks that the issue of the false confession arose.
The judge has held a series of closed preliminary hearings on the matter, which is also being looked at by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Manhattan.
The tale of the student, Abdallah Higazy, remains one of the oddest epi-sodes of the post-Sept. 11 world. Higazy was arrested in December 2001 as a material witness in the terrorism investigation after a security guard at the Millennium Hilton Hotel, in Lower Manhattan, said that an aviation radio had been found in the safe in Higazy’s room, which had a view of the World Trade Center. Higazy spent a month in jail, mostly in solitary confinement, but was released after the security guard admitted making up the story.
During his first three weeks in custody, Higazy protested his innocence and volunteered to take a polygraph test. During the test, administered by an FBI agent, however, he confessed to owning the radio, and gave various stories as to how he had obtained it, the authorities have said.
The confession fueled suspicions that Higazy might be tied to the hijackers. The radio could have been used to communicate with a plane in flight, and Higazy had also once worked in the Egyptian Air Corps, where he repaired radios that were used to communicate with people on the ground.
On the advice of his lawyer, Higazy will say little about the circumstances of his confession. He does not make any allegations of physical abuse. But in a telephone interview recently, he said that after he was left alone for several hours with the FBI agent, he had been ready to say anything.
“I hyperventilated,” he said. “I couldn’t breathe. I felt I was going to faint. I wanted out of that room any possible way.”
He said that his lawyer, Robert Dunn, had been told to stand outside the door. Dunn said that when the FBI agent emerged from the room, he said Higazy had not completed the polygraph test, but had admitted owning the radio.
“He said, ‘Well, we don’t have a polygraph, but we have a confession,'” said Dunn, who added that he went in and asked Higazy about the agent’s report. He said Higazy replied: “‘This guy’s got me so upset that I thought I was going to have a heart attack. I’m not sure what I said, but I believe I did admit to having the radio. But it’s a lie.'”
Dunn said he is limited in what he can say about the inquiry. “The matter is still pending before Judge Rakoff,” Dunn said. “One of the issues that remains under consideration is how it is that a false confession came to be extracted from Higazy.”