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Ashcroft's Justice: U.S. Held 600 for Secret Rulings

DETROIT Β— More than 600 immigrants nationwide have been jailed and subject to secret immigration hearings since Sept. 11, according to new Justice Department statistics.
The numbers, in a department letter written to Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., are the first accounting of the magnitude of closed-door legal proceedings conducted as part of new, sweeping anti-terrorism laws, civil-rights advocates said yesterday.





The numbers, they say, raise questions about how well the government has targeted its terrorism probe and whether hundreds have been deported without due process.





An official in Attorney General John Ashcroft's Justice Department said yesterday that hearings are closed and information about them is limited to protect the privacy of detainees and the terrorism investigation.





"This information, if made public, could let the terrorists know things we don't want them to know," department spokesman Mark Corallo said.





Kary Moss, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in Michigan, said she thinks most of the people subject to the hearings are facing deportation.





"I don't think we had any idea that this number of people had been subjected to closed hearings," she said.





"The implications are very serious. If none of these people have been charged with any criminal-law violations, then John Ashcroft has essentially, on his own, created two systems of justice in this country."





Levin, in his role as chairman of the permanent subcommittee on investigations, asked the department in March for a detailed accounting of terrorism detainees.





"It took the Justice Department more than three months to produce a partial response to my letter," Levin said this week. But it "raises a number of additional questions, including why closed hearings were necessary for so many people," Levin said. He said he plans to press the department for more answers.





In a July 3 letter to Levin, Assistant Attorney General Daniel Bryant said that, as of May 29, 611 individuals detained by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) had had at least one closed hearing.





The letter, although short on many details requested by Levin, offered a rare glimpse of the government's anti-terrorism efforts that previously were only guessed at or gathered in bits and pieces.





In the early months of the investigation, Justice Department officials said that up to 1,200 people had been detained nationally. But the letter says 752 individuals had been detained by the INS in connection with the terror probe, and 611 of those had secret hearings.





It's unclear why there is a discrepancy between the detainee numbers, and that's one of the questions Levin wants answered. The INS still has 81 people in custody, according to the letter.





The most striking element of the investigation, immigration and legal experts said, was the number of closed hearings.





Aside from hearings for asylum seekers, which are closed for privacy reasons and can be open if the asylum seeker requests it, most immigration court hearings are open to the public, immigration lawyers said.





But that changed after Sept. 11. Immigrants with visa violations who were arrested allegedly in connection to the terrorist attacks were designated "special interest" detainees.





Hearings were closed to their families and the public by an order from Chief U.S. Immigration Judge Michael Creppy on Sept. 21. Creppy issued the order at the behest of Ashcroft, who has been criticized for damaging civil rights in his effort to root out terrorists.





Two major lawsuits — including one brought by the Detroit Free Press, other newspapers and the ACLU — challenged Creppy's directive.





In April, U.S. District Judge Nancy Edmunds ruled in Detroit that the closed hearings were unconstitutional and ordered the secret INS hearings of Ann Arbor, Mich., charity fund-raiser Rabih Haddad be opened. The government appealed the ruling. Appeal arguments will be heard by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati on Aug. 6.





Haddad's charity has been accused of funding terrorist organizations, but he's being held on visa violations.





Even activists who have been fighting to open the closed hearings said they had no idea there were so many. Some say the government is cloaking its activities out of embarrassment.





Men once portrayed as strong links to the al-Qaida terrorist network now are being charged with minor visa violations and deported.





"It turned out these people are not criminals, they are not terrorists," said Imad Hamad, Midwestern regional director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. "Yes, they are in violation of certain immigration rules — which before Sept. 11 was not a reason to be dumped out of the country."





Public oversight is important because abuses happen when nobody is watching, said Lee Gelernt, senior staff counsel for the national ACLU's Immigrants' Rights Project.





"It is difficult to overstate the importance of public scrutiny of the INS process," Gelernt said, "where detainees are facing a trained prosecutor, often without counsel, and the outcome of the hearing will literally determine whether they are locked up for months, and then deported."
 
 

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