US Secrecy Over Prisoners Is Unlawful

The Bush Administration’s secrecy about hundreds of detainees picked up in a post-September 11 dragnet is unlawful and the identities and alleged offenses 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 criticized 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 favor 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 defense in the case, but Judge D’Italia rejected its argument that disclosing detainees’ information could result in their being harassed, stigmatized 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 program 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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