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NJ judge rules on America's 'disappeared'

World News

March 28, 2002

US secrecy over terror prisoners is against law
From Damian Whitworth in Washington

THE Bush Administration’s secrecy about hundreds of detainees
picked up in a post-September 11 dragnet is unlawful and the
identities and alleged offences of those being held must be
revealed, a New Jersey court has ruled.

In a rebuke to the Attorney-General, John Ashcroft, a judge in New
Jersey ordered disclosure of basic information about detainees in
two state jails where most of those picked up since the terror
attacks are believed to be held.

Mr Ashcroft’s crackdown, which led to more than 1,000 detentions
at one stage, had been criticised by civil liberties groups over
the lack of information about who had been arrested, on what
charges and where they were held.

So far only one person is known to have been charged with a crime
linked to September 11 and most are being held on immigration
charges or have yet to be charged. Some of those who have
subsequently been released have complained about their treatment
and difficulties seeing lawyers.

Superior Court Judge Arthur D’Italia ruled in favour of the
American Civil Liberties Union, which had brought the case,
seeking information from the counties of Passaic and Hudson. Most
of the detainees are thought to be held in the two counties.

The Justice Department joined the defence in the case, but Judge D
’Italia rejected its argument that disclosing detainees’
information could result in their being harassed, stigmatised or
physically harmed and that co-operation with the investigation
could be diminished. “Nothing is easier for the Government to
assert than that the disclosure of the arrest of X would
jeopardize investigation Y,” Mr D’Italia wrote in the opinion.

“It’s the right ruling,” Deborah Jacobs, of the ACLU, said. “It
will enable us to reach out and provide assistance to those who
need it.” Believed to be the first such ruling in the country, Ms
Jacobs said that it had implications for all detainees held in US
jails.

The Justice Department plans to appeal. Officials recently said
that 327 people are being held on immigration violations
nationwide or are being investigated for “possible terrorist
connections”.

That figure does not include detainees held under sealed
indictments or as material witnesses, and the Justice Department
will not divulge that number. Mr Ashcroft has refused to release
the names of immigration detainees, saying that the information
would be “too sensitive for public scrutiny”. He has also said
that the department’s efforts to combat terrorism were carefully
crafted to avoid infringing constitutional rights while saving
American lives.

The ACLU has also filed a federal lawsuit under the Freedom of
Information Act seeking similar information on detainees
nationwide. In a further attempt to chip away at the unprecedented
secrecy a suit has been filed in New Jersey federal courts
challenging the Government’s right to hold detainees’ court
hearings behind closed doors.

Amnesty International has said that detainees are having their
human rights violated, including their rights to humane treatment
and prompt access to a lawyer. “(It) is simply unacceptable and is
a violation of international law,” William Schulz, executive
director of Amnesty International, said.

The New York Times has also reported that detainees have been
languishing in jail beyond the 90-day maximum period allowed.

The Justice Department has said that it is expanding its programme
of interviewing Arab-American men currently living in the US.
Originally a list of 4,800 people was drawn up, but fewer than
half of these were located. A further 3,000 are now being sought.
Of those questioned only about 20 have been arrested, most for
immigration violations
 
 

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