January 15, 2002
Delays Cited In Charging Detainees
By Dan Eggen
Scores of immigrants detained after the Sept. 11 terror attacks were jailed for weeks before they were charged with immigration violations, according to documents released by the Justice Department.
In one example, two Pakistani immigrants were arrested on Oct. 2, but were not charged with overstaying their visas until 49 days later, the records show. In another case, an Israeli national of unidentified ethnicity was held for 66 days before being charged with illegally entering the country.
The newly released documents, filed in federal court Friday by the Justice Department in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the agency, provide the clearest picture yet of the controversial and secretive dragnet launched by the U.S. government in the wake of the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
The data show that most of the approximately 725 people detained on immigration violations since Sept. 11 were charged within several days of their arrest. But a significant number waited in jail for a week or more before the Immigration and Naturalization Service served them with charging documents, according to a heavily edited list provided to plaintiffs in the lawsuit.
Even the longest of those delays do not appear to violate INS regulations, which allow officials an undefined "reasonable time period" to formally charge detainees with an immigration violation, according to U.S. officials and immigration experts.
But the numbers illustrate the wide discretion that immigration officials and federal prosecutors have exercised over those detained after the attacks on New York and Washington, and underscore the secrecy surrounding the detentions, according to critics of the process.
"There isn't much justification for holding someone for that period of time without bringing a charge," said David Cole, a Georgetown University law professor who is part of the lawsuit, which seeks the identities of the detainees and other information.
"In open proceedings, the government would never get away with holding a person for three weeks without bringing charges. The only reason they have gotten away with it is these proceedings have been conducted under a veil of secrecy."
Justice officials said yesterday that some of the immigrants who experienced delays may have been in the custody of the FBI or other agencies before being turned over to INS, which could have caused a delay in formal charges.
Justice officials stressed that even without formal charges, detainees had the right to seek lawyers, contact a consulate or embassy and ask an immigration judge to set bond.
"Some of the formalities might have taken some time, but that doesn't mean people weren't getting the attention they needed," said one senior Justice official. "A lot of these cases may well be explained."
About 725 people have been detained on immigration charges as part of the Sept. 11 probe, including 460 still in custody, according to the documents and Justice officials.
About 370 detainees are suspected of having possible ties to terrorist groups or to individuals with links to terrorism. The rest have been released on bond, removed from the country or are being deported, authorities said.
Another group of more than 100 foreign nationals have been charged with criminal offenses by the federal government.
FBI and Justice officials have previously indicated that only a handful of those still in U.S. custody are suspected of being members of Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda terrorist network or of having direct links to the Sept. 11 hijackings. Only one person in U.S. custody, French citizen Zacarias Moussaoui, has been charged in connection with the attacks.
A coalition of activist and legal groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and the Center for National Security Studies, sued the Justice Department in December to obtain more detailed information about foreign nationals detained on criminal and immigration charges since Sept. 11.
In documents filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, federal prosecutors denied most of the requests, arguing that providing the names, locations and other details about detainees would undermine the FBI's Sept. 11 probe and could endanger the public by revealing the arrests of suspected terrorists.
"Releasing this information could pave the way for additional terrorist activities in that it would undermine the ability of the United States to obtain cooperation from knowledgeable witnesses," wrote James S. Reynolds, chief of the Justice Department's terrorism and violent crime section.
But Steven Shapiro, the ACLU's legal director, said the government's "response remains inadequate. It still denies the American public the kind of basic information that is routinely available in other criminal investigations, and allows the press and public to determine if the government is behaving responsibly."
Staff writer Mary Beth Sheridan and research editor Margot Williams contributed to this report.
Copyright © 2002, Washington Post Company. All rights reserved.
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