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U.S.: Rights Groups Worried About 'Secret Arrests' At Home

  • Jeffrey Donovan

Civil rights groups in the United States are objecting to the more than 1,000 arrests made in connection with the 11 September terrorist attacks on the U.S. They say authorities have not revealed the detainees' names or the charges they are being held on. Others say the war on terrorism at home involves a necessary tightrope walk across a free society's most basic liberties.

Washington, 31 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- In times of war, civil rights can come under siege. And democracy-loving Americans have had one burning question on their minds since September's terrorist attacks: What price freedom?

If a society is too free, then it is vulnerable to attack. But if it cracks down too hard on terrorism, it may destroy its most cherished value: freedom.

Some U.S. civil advocacy groups are now concerned that the government is doing just that -- eroding basic American liberties in order to clamp down on terrorist suspects inside the United States.

Others, however, feel the government is obliged to take extra steps to protect the country during a time of war.

Several advocacy groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for National Security Studies in Washington, D.C., filed a formal request yesterday demanding that the U.S. government release the names of the more than 1,000 people who have been detained so far in connection with the 11 September attacks.

Kate Martin is director of the Center for National Security Studies. She says the coalition of advocacy groups believes that investigators are conducting secret arrests that violate basic rights. She says the public has a right to know their names, as well as the charges they are being held on: "It appears that the vast majority of the people have been detained on some kind of criminal proceeding, and the oldest tradition we have is that criminal trials are open and arrests are public facts -- not secret facts."

The U.S. Justice Department defends the arrests, which so far total 1,017. Dan Nelson, a spokesman for the Justice Department, says no one should be surprised that investigators have been working overtime: "As a result of the terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center, and at the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania, we are conducting the largest investigation in U.S. history. And we are using all the resources available to disrupt future terrorist attacks and find those responsible."

Nelson says the arrests fall into three general categories. The first is a small number of material witnesses, about whom investigators by law cannot disclose any information. The second category consists of arrests -- about 180 so far -- for immigration violations, information about which is also prohibited from release. The third category is the largest, Nelson says, and includes arrests made at the state and local levels.

Martin of the Center for National Security Studies believes some of the detainees may have been denied legal counsel -- a basic right of arrested parties in the U.S. Worried that the war on terrorism is eroding freedom in the U.S., Martin points to a recently passed antiterrorism bill that gives investigators broad powers to watch and detain suspected terrorists. She makes this observation: "The fact of secret arrest is one of the distinguishing features between a democracy and a totalitarian country."

But Nelson of the Justice Department rejects the charge that detainees do not have access to an attorney: "Any time an individual enters or arrives at an INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service) detention facility, we inform the individual that they have a right to counsel. We inform them that they may contact their consulate office from their country of origin. We give that detainee a handbook explaining their rights and responsibilities. We also provide them with a list of free legal service providers. We provide them with access to telephones, law libraries, and other necessary materials to defend their case."

Are people being unjustly held in U.S. jails? Are civil rights eroding?

Todd Gaziano is a legal expert with the conservative Heritage Foundation, a Washington think-tank. He says that while he has some concerns about the recent antiterrorism legislation -- in particular, about the right to detain terrorist suspects indefinitely -- the final version of the law that was passed satisfies him.

For example, he says "habeas corpus" -- the right that an arrested person must be charged with a clear crime under established legal proceedings -- has not been violated: "The bottom line is this: The federal courts are still open. No one has suspended the writ of habeas corpus, or even attempted to do so. These people have legal redress. They have attorneys, either hired or appointed, to represent them."

Although Gaziano says the U.S. judicial system has hardly become a gulag, he admits the new measures offer greater potential for abuse. But until it can be proven that such abuse is occurring -- especially in normal criminal matters unrelated to terrorism -- he sees no reason for alarm.

Gaziano also says that, because of the war, it is natural for authorities to take a keener look at immigrants and foreign visitors: "There is, in time of war, a need for heightened security. And in time of war, visitors or illegal aliens from, you know, countries we're at war with, or who might be sympathetic to the nation we're at war with, ought to be scrutinized more carefully."

War or no war, America remains a free country. So, as authorities in the United States crack down on terrorist suspects, they know that human rights activists will be watching their every move and exercising their rights of free speech to criticize them, if needed.

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