Federal prosecutors in Phoenix are asking a judge to issue an unusual order to force-feed a hunger-striking Middle Eastern pilot arrested on charges stemming from the investigation of the Sept. 11 terrorism attacks.
Malek Mohamed Seif, also known as Malek Mohamed Abdulah, is protesting what he contends is his improper detention as part of the global anti-terrorism dragnet.
Taking only liquids, Seif has lost 30 pounds since his October arrest and is rapidly deteriorating, officials said.
Seif, 36, believed to be a Djibouti national, has acknowledged a passing acquaintance with one of the suspected skyjackers.
He also trained at the same Phoenix area flight school as an Algerian pilot suspected of helping prepare some of the hijackers, according to federal investigative records.
But the only charges filed to date against Seif are for identity fraud. A federal judge recently stressed in a court order that no evidence has been presented linking him to terrorism.
Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who is housing Seif for federal authorities, says he is getting worried about his high-profile inmate. "I don't want this guy to die in my jail," said the no-frills lawman who made headlines by housing prisoners in desert tents and making them wear pink shirts. Arpaio says he has been talking with Seif, trying to coax him to eat.
As a compromise, Arpaio said, he removed pork from Seif's meals. But he has declined to fill his special requests for dates and ice water. "I said, 'We don't have room service.' "
Seif's attorney, Thomas Hoidal, reported to a judge Monday that his client was in the jail infirmary and too weak to attend a hearing.
Seif, who left the U.S. before the attacks, has complained that federal investigators duped him into returning to answer questions. After he landed in Phoenix on Oct. 25, he was arrested for allegedly making false statements on federal forms to obtain dual identities.
"He doesn't understand, when he came back voluntarily, why he is being treated in this fashion," said Hoidal, who also is trying to persuade Seif to eat.
Prosecutors expect to file additional bank and financial fraud charges against Seif and are worried he may be unfit to stand trial. They are seeking medical and psychiatric evaluations of Seif.
One veteran U.S. law enforcement official in Phoenix said he knew of no other instance when federal prosecutors there sought a forced-feeding order.
Sporadic hunger strikes have been reported among the more than 1,000 detainees rounded up in the anti-terrorism crackdown. But Seif, who has dropped from about 180 to about 150 pounds, appears to have lasted the longest.
It is not clear whether Seif intends to fight the forced feeding order, his attorney said. A hearing is scheduled for today. Arpaio doubts a judge's order will be effective, as long as Seif remains conscious. "If he's still coherent . . . you can't force the guy to eat if he says he doesn't want to."
In another development Wednesday, a coalition of 16 civil liberties groups filed suit against the Justice Department, demanding information about those arrested and detained since the Sept. 11 attacks. The groups said they were seeking such information as the names of the detainees, the charges against them and how long they have been held.
Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft has argued that some of the information must be kept secret to aid in the investigation.
Kate Martin of the Center for National Security Studies, a plaintiff in the case, said that instead of federal officials "simply announcing that they are respecting the Constitution, we need evidence that will show whether that is true."