October 3, 2001

Groups Question U.S. Detentions, Anti-Terror Bill

By Andrea Shalal-Esa

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- Civil rights groups on Tuesday raised serious questions about the detention of some 500 people in the investigation into the Sept. 11 attacks and new legislation that would give law enforcement expanded powers.

The groups stressed their support for U.S. efforts to find those responsible for the attacks, which left more than 5,700 people dead or missing and presumed dead, but said President Bush's anti-terror package could have a lasting, chilling effect on civil rights.

The concerns have been exacerbated by reports of hundreds of alleged hate crimes against Muslims or those of Middle Eastern descent, despite calls by Bush and other top officials to avoid stereotyping or discrimination following the hijack attacks on New York and Washington by suspected Islamic radicals.

Some have described the detentions, most of which have involved Middle Eastern immigrants, to the internment of 120,000 Japanese-Americans, 11,000 German-Americans and thousands of others during World War Two.

``We are obviously very upset about it,'' said Jim Zogby, who heads the Arab American Institute. He cited reports that many people of Middle Eastern descent were being detained on minor or no charges, despite Bush's admonition to be careful. ``What's happening is a bit of vigilantism,'' he said.


U.S. Justice Department spokesman Dan Nelson said on Tuesday that 500 people were currently being detained as part of the investigation, including 142 being held on immigration violations, such as overstaying a student visa.

The total number of detentions excludes those who have already been released, but includes an unspecified number being held on various state and local charges, ranging from traffic violations and drug charges, as well as material witnesses.

Justice department officials refused to detail how many people were being held as material witnesses in the Sept. 11 attacks.

``The numbers indicate that the level of profiling is really unprecedented,'' said one congressional aide who asked not to be named. ``It's a round-up, that's what it is.''

Arab American groups have received complaints from some of those detained, including several who said they were denied the right to consult a lawyer, said Kareem Shora, legal adviser to the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.

A doctor from San Antonia, Texas, Al-Bader Al-Hamzi, told NBC's ``Dateline'' on Monday he was held as a material witness for two weeks before being released without any charges.

Al-Hamzi said he was angry and frightened at times during the interrogation, which included stays in three different detention centers in Texas and New York, but said the FBI agents who questioned him were highly professional.

Nelson insisted that detainees were permitted to consult a lawyer and officials advised them of their rights, even providing documents in their native language in many cases.


Given the large number of detentions and past experience with people held on ``secret evidence,'' Zogby said rights groups were particularly concerned about language in a proposed bill that would give the government expanded powers to detain non-U.S. citizens, in some cases, indefinitely.

He said the groups had successfully fought for the release of more than 20 people who had been held without the right to see the classified evidence against them for up to four years long before the expanded measures in this legislation were proposed. Nearly all had since been released after a judge reviewed their cases and deemed the evidence insufficient.

``Our feeling is that to move from secret evidence which had been abused to 'no evidence' takes us very far down the road of a suspension of basic guarantees,'' he said.

Members of the U.S. House of Representatives working on the Bush bill, which also includes broad powers to wiretap phones, track Internet communications and prosecute anyone who knowingly harbors a suspected terrorist, have already addressed some controversial provisions in the bill.

But civil rights groups said in its current form, the bill would still permit indefinite detention of foreigners who were stateless or could not be deported to their home country.


They also challenged language giving the attorney general broad powers to certify an alien as a ``terrorist'' by citing ''reasonable grounds'' but without providing any evidence. That measure could lead to large-scale investigations of U.S. citizens for engaging in civil disobedience, they said.

``We think it's a basic principle of American justice that people have the ability to confront the charges against them,'' said Timothy Edgar of the American Civil Liberties Union

His group has said it will not endorse the bill in its current form and is continuing to push for changes, including a mechanism to ensure better review of any certifications of aliens as ``terrorists'' made by the attorney general.

The Senate is working on its own version of the bill, but administration officials want it passed as soon as possible.

``If you don't allow a judge into the process, then the government can get away with all sorts of completely irrelevant information, and the result would be lots of lots people in jail for no apparent reason,'' said Kit Gage of the National Coalition to Protect Political Freedoms.

Copyright 2001. Reuters News Service. All rights reserved.

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