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Muslim American journalist released after 10 day detention as a material witness

22nd Feb 2019

Elham Asaad Buaras

A Muslim American newscaster for the Iranian Press TV network, who was detained for 10 days by the US Government as a material witness, has complained of mistreatment.

Marzieh Hashemi, 59, who was released on January 23, said her ordeal “is something that needs to be condemned across the table”.

Hashemi was arrested by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) while boarding a St Louis flight to visit her son in Denver on January 15. The cause for her arrest was initially unknown, but according to subsequent court documents she was being held as a material witness for a federal investigation following testimony before a federal grand jury in Washington DC.

“It is not about me. It is about the US Justice Department and Government – that they feel that they can just take people’s rights away, sweep them off of the streets, hold them in the name of being a material witness and not charging them … indefinitely.”

Her detention prompted national and international condemnation. Protests against her arrest were held in twenty four cities in across the world.

Demonstrators gathered in front of the Swiss Embassy in Tehran, which oversees US interests in Iran, Ankara, London, New York City, Copenhagen, Toronto, Sydney and at least 16 other cities to support Marzieh Hashemi. Also a campaign to #FreeMarziehHashemi was launched on social media to support her

Press freedom and Muslim-advocacy groups including the Committee to Protect Journalists and the Council on American-Islamic Relations also condemned her detention.

Those concerns were magnified when Hashemi’s family alleged that while in custody, Hashemi, an observant Muslim, was denied halal food and had her hijab forcibly removed.

Hashemi confirmed she was made to remove her hijab during booking for her mug shot and while walking in common areas of the detention facility.

“I said I want a scarf on,” Hashemi said. “I’m a Muslim woman, I have the right to wear hijab. And I said [it’s] freedom of religion. What you’re doing is illegal.”

She also said she barely ate for the first three days, save for an apple given to her by a corrections officer, while her request to be provided with halal food was processed.

“If I haven’t committed a crime and I’m not being charged with a crime why would I feel [it] necessary to run?”

Authorities have not released an explanation for Hashemi’s detention but it appears related to her primary residency being in Iran.

US law allows the Government to arrest and hold “material witnesses” if a judge agrees with prosecutors that the individual has information that is important to a criminal proceeding and may flee if simply subpoenaed to appear in court.

Hashemi denied that she constituted a flight risk and said her attorney unsuccessfully motioned for the presiding judge to release her. Hashemi asked, “If I haven’t committed a crime and I’m not being charged with a crime why would I feel [it] necessary to run?”

Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) senior national security council, Laura Pitter, said that one of the problems with material witness laws is that the warrants are “issued in secret so we don’t know what they are based on”. And that appeals against “the detention is often conducted in secret so we don’t know what the grounds are for even using them in the first place or whether the process has been fair,” added Pitter.

The law’s usage in the federal system is currently uncommon. According to the Washington Post, Hashemi’s case is the first such filed in federal court in Washington this year, “and the court’s electronic docketing system indicates only two such cases were filed last year. Both are under seal.”

In other jurisdictions, usage is less rare. In Hashemi’s home city of New Orleans, the district attorney requested more than 150 material witness warrants over an eight-year period, many of which were filed against crime victims hesitant to testify.

Hashemi said she was not at liberty to discuss the exact nature of the case she was detained to testify on, but said she was questioned in front of a grand jury on four separate occasions, which was confirmed by disclosures made in a federal court order.

Hashemi said the case “had a lot to do with me being an American and where I live, which is the Islamic Republic of Iran, and related to a job situation”.

A US Government source told Reuters that the grand jury was hearing arguments on whether Press TV, is a “propaganda outlet” that failed to register with the justice department as a “foreign agent”.

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