For months after the September 11 2001 attacks, civil rights groups complained that the U.S. government was violating basic human rights by rounding up illegal immigrants and detaining them for months. Now, a new report from inside the government backs these charges.
Washington, 5 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- When Malek Zeidan shows up in the neighborhoods of Patterson, New Jersey, children come running to greet him.
A 45-year-old Syrian immigrant, Zeidan, among other things, makes a living driving an ice-cream truck. As he rides through the streets with music blaring from his truck, kids know that the frozen delights Zeidan delivers are just around the corner.
But for 40 days last year, Zeidan was nowhere to be seen. He was among more than 1,000 mostly Arab or Muslim immigrants who were locked up in U.S. prisons, apparently suspected of involvement with the group of Arabs who carried out the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks, which killed about 3,000 people.
But after months of strident criticism by civil rights groups, Zeidan and other illegal immigrants held after the attacks are hearing a new message from the U.S. government.
A new report issued this week by a government body that oversees possible abuse at the Justice Department has confirmed many of the charges made by civil rights groups. The report by the Justice Department's own inspector-general says the post-11 September roundup of immigrants was plagued with "significant problems" and that hundreds of detainees were forced to remain in jail unfairly under harsh conditions.
Wendy Patten, the U.S. policy director for Human Rights Watch in Washington, says, "The report is a superb expose of how the Justice Department circumvented peoples' basic rights after September 11th. It's a detailed, 198-page report that confirms the abuses that we at Human Rights Watch found in our own investigation into the mistreatment of the September 11th detainees."
The problems cited in the report include a failure to promptly tell detainees why they were being held; hindering their ability to secure legal counsel and bond hearings; a denial of bail for many detainees; physical and verbal abuse; and sometimes harsh conditions of detainment.
Zeidan was picked up by chance when officers came to question his roommate about the attacks. When they discovered that Zeidan had overstayed his tourist visa, he was tossed into prison to await possible deportation.
Zeidan's lawyer, Regis Fernandez, says that his client was labeled a "national security threat" by U.S. prosecutors -- apparently due to his race, which matched that of the Arab hijackers who flew planes into New York's World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Describing one of Zeidan's court hearings, Fernandez tells RFE/RL: "There was a tense moment during the hearing because we wanted to get more information as to how he was selected [as a security threat]. And they -- the immigration trial attorney -- indicated that it had something to do with the World Trade Center investigation. The client almost fainted. [He was] pretty shocked at that."
Generally, U.S. immigration officials do not arrest someone for overstaying a visa, although they can face deportation after a court hearing.
But in the charged atmosphere of post-11 September America, the U.S. Justice Department, under Attorney General John Ashcroft, allowed itself to alter its common procedures because of what were called "extraordinary circumstances." For example, the Justice Department refused to grant bail to illegal immigrants.
Ashcroft strongly defended the detentions, and the secrecy surrounding them, as vital to preventing future attacks. "Our most important objective is to save innocent lives from further acts of terrorism by identifying, disrupting, and dismantling terrorist networks," Ashcroft said last summer.
Asked about that policy, analyst Michael Scardaville of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, tells RFE/RL: "I don't think it was just an overreaction or anything. I think it was a matter of recognizing that we face a new and different threat that we hadn't taken adequate action to respond to in the past. Our counter-terrorism policy in the United States was woefully insufficient prior to September 11. Our enforcement of immigration and other border-security laws was incredibly lax. And I think that the Department of Justice recognized that."
But as immigrants languished in jail, sometimes for months, rights groups complained that the Justice Department was violating basic civil rights by not providing evidence for their continued detention.
As it turns out, none of the detained immigrants was ever convicted of terror-related offenses, and almost all of them were eventually deported. A few, like Zeidan, still face a possible forced return to homelands they left long ago for better lives in America.
Zeidan may be one of the lucky ones. Uzi Bouhadana was not.
An Israeli citizen, Bouhadana was tracked by officials from the Federal Bureau of Investigation while driving a truck from his home in south Florida to the state of Mississippi, where he was arrested on 16 September 2001 for working without a permit.
His sister, Smadar Bouhadana, says officials suspected her Jewish brother because of his "Arabic-sounding" name and the fact that some of the hijackers had lived in the same area of Florida. Uzi was deported after just three weeks, but according to his sister, not before jail officials let it be known that Uzi was a "terrorist" and allowed other prisoners to beat him, breaking his jaw in several places.
"Everybody thought, 'He's a terrorist.' Uzi told me that the guards over there were whispering something to the other guys and, a few minutes after that, the guard outside just disappeared, and they started to beat him. They beat him for two hours, and they didn't let him go to the front door to call for help or something. Six hours later, the guard apparently showed up," Bouhadana says.
Solail Mohammed, a New Jersey attorney, says the detentions were tragic for many. Mohammed represented 29 detainees. He says some were behind bars for eight months, despite accepting orders to be deported after just a few days in jail.
Mohammed says one of his clients lost 36 kilograms while in jail. Another man discovered that his parents had died during his detention, while he says another man's wife suffered a miscarriage related to the stress she endured while he was being held.
The report by the inspector-general lays out 21 recommendations for the Justice Department to improve its handling of such cases in the future.
Ashcroft's office has said little about the report, stating only that it did not conclude that any of the department's actions were illegal. Some of its officials have been quoted as saying the department will adopt at least some of the report's recommendations.
Scardaville of the Heritage Foundation acknowledges that there may have been some abuses. But he believes they were mainly due to a bureaucratic backlog during an extraordinary time in U.S. history.
"These people had engaged in some sort of violations. Typically, in this case, we're talking of immigration violations. When you rope in a lot of people, that's going to make it difficult to process everybody. So I do think that that needs to be taken into account," Scardaville says.
The report deals only with those held on immigration charges in the U.S. after 11 September 2001. It does not take into consideration other controversial cases of U.S. detainees, such as prisoners captured during the war in Afghanistan and held at a U.S. military facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Some activists have accused the U.S. government of failing to respect the rights of those captured in Afghanistan, as well.
Mohammed, the immigration lawyer, laments that these cases are bad publicity for Washington as it seeks to lobby for human rights improvements in other states, especially in the Middle East.
"The lesson that comes out is: We don't respect our own laws. We don't respect our own constitution. How can we expect others to follow a fair and democratic way of life when we ourselves, who are supposed to be the champions of freedom and respect for the law, go out and behave in this manner?" he says.
Patten of Human Rights Watch agrees. Of the Guantanamo Bay and the U.S. immigration detainees, Patten says, "I think the two cases do raise a similar question, and that is: will the United States, as well as other governments around the world, pursue their legitimate objectives of countering terrorism in a way that upholds basic human rights?"
But Patten also sees a positive side. She says what is remarkable is the U.S. government was able to conduct a critical investigation of itself, and make those findings public.
The next step, she says, is to follow up on its own recommendations.