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(Sep11 detainees) Groups Sue to Open Closed Hearings (AP)

Associated Press Writer

March 6, 2002, 6:41 PM EST

NEWARK, N.J. -- Civil rights groups and two newspapers sued the federal government Wednesday, seeking to ban secret court hearings for detainees arrested in the Sept. 11 investigation.
The papers' reporters tried to cover court hearings involving detainees, but were barred from courtrooms, along with the rest of the public.

The suit challenges the constitutionality of a Sept. 21 memorandum by the nation's chief immigration judge which mandates closed hearings for detainees whose cases have been designated of "special interest" to the FBI. The memo also prohibits court administrators from listing the cases on dockets, or confirming when hearings are to be held.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the New-York based Center For Constitutional Rights filed the suit in federal court on behalf of the New Jersey Law Journal and the North Jersey Media Group, publisher of the Herald News of West Paterson.

"America and Americans have a long history of distrust and disdain for secret proceedings," said Ed Barocas, the ACLU's legal director. "What transpires in court is public property."

Federal law generally directs that immigration court hearings be open to the public, with only a few exceptions, including cases in which secrecy is needed to protect the public interest.

The suit names immigration Judge Michael Creppy and Attorney General John Ashcroft as defendants. Immigration court spokesmen referred inquiries to the Justice Department, which did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

Federal officials have said the secrecy is necessary to keep information about detainees with possible links to terrorism from America's enemies.
Most of the 326 post-Sept. 11 detainees still in custody are being held in the Hudson, Passaic and Middlesex county jails in New Jersey.

Abdeen Jabara, an attorney with the Center For Constitutional Rights, estimated as many as 500 secret hearings involving detainees have been held nationwide.
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