Monday, October 13, 2003

Re: Contempt proceedings of Ashqar (or--"Sometimes the law has something")

It is important for purposes of understanding my concern to distinguish between civil and criminal contempt. At the time the judge locked Ashqar up, he had not been charged with a crime and was not on trial (indeed--the government had no intention of prosecuting Mr. Ashqar--they offered him full immunity for his testimony). The judge decided, under the powers afforded him by the Recalcitrant Witness Statute (18 U.S.C. sec. 1826(b)), to imprison Ashqar as a means of coercing him to testify. The district court and the Seventh Circuit both decided that he might be susceptible to some arm-twisting into talking. I found this conclusion to be ludicrous.

Now, he is being prosecuted for criminal contempt (18 U.S.C. 401(3)). Criminal charges, of course, bring with them a host of procedural protections that are not involved with civil proceedings. I do not take issue with the District Attorney's decision to indict Mr. Ashqar for disobeying the court's orders (although I find its selective use of criminal contempt charges a little puzzling).

I don't know whether Mr. Ashqar is an evildoer. But it disturbs me that someone can be labeled with a scarlet T by the government and that suffices to throw the normal protections our system offers out the window.

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