BTL: Amnesty Intl. Condemns Secret Detentions
BETWEEN THE LINES Q&A
from the nationally syndicated radio newsmagazine "Between The Lines"
A weekly column featuring progressive viewpoints on national and international issues under-reported in major media For release March 24, 2002
Human Rights Group Condemns
U.S. Government's Secret Detention of
Interview by Scott Harris
* Six months after Sept. 11 attack, hundreds of detainees remain in custody.
In the weeks after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, some 1,200 immigrants were arrested or detained by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service in a search for individuals connected to the deadly assaults on New York City and Washington, D.C. Although nearly all of those picked up were guilty of nothing more than minor visa violations, six months later, 300 non-citizens are believed to still be in federal custody, with an unknown number having been deported or released on bond.
A report recently released by Amnesty International accuses the government of depriving a significant number of these detainees of their basic human rights under U.S. and international law. Amnesty states that many of those detained have been arbitrarily imprisoned in secrecy, without access to an attorney or contact with family members. The human rights group has also expressed concern about the punitive conditions under which these individuals have been held, including prolonged periods of solitary confinement and heavy shackling.
Amnesty has filed a lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act demanding that the government release detailed information on those being held and has called for an investigation of the conditions these individuals have been subjected to. Between The Lines' Scott Harris spoke with Josh Rubenstein, northeast regional director with Amnesty International USA, who questions the government's justification for withholding basic human and civil rights from these persons.
Joshua Rubenstein: After Sept. 11th, of course it was natural that the government had two things on its mind. First to prevent another attack, and that was an immediate concern we all shared. And secondly to uncover the full conspiracy that led to the attack in the first place. This put people of Muslim background and people from the Middle East and South East Asia -- from countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh, it gave them particular vulnerability.
So, as many as1,200 were taken into custody. We believe that around 300 remain in custody today. Their status is really very vague. The government says, "Well, they had violations of their visas, but for the most part rarely do we take people into custody for overstaying their visas. And we certainly don't put them in the extraordinary security circumstances that these detainees face now, where they cannot see their families, except on a very irregular basis, where they're shackled, even shackled when they come before a judge. We have a case where someone was shackled while he was in the hospital having an infection treated. So these are very worrisome things.
Between The Lines: What does international law tell us about the rights of detainees held under these circumstances in terms of their right to see a lawyer or family members or know the charges lodged against them?
Joshua Rubenstein: Well, I think what's more important is what U.S. law requires. U.S. law requires that within 24 hours or 48 hours typically, you have charges laid against you. You're taken before a magistrate of some kind. You have a lawyer attached to your case. That's what happens to, say, a petty criminal who's picked up on the street; they're brought before a magistrate the next day. There's a lawyer assigned to them, say from legal aid or somewhere, they're not just left there hanging by themselves. That's been a legal principle now for more than 40 years since the famous Gideon case.
So, this is very worrisome that somehow in the wake of Sept. 11, we feel it necessary to compromise these fundamental constitutional principles. And I have to say, while we all felt very shaken by the attacks on Sept. 11, no one's suspended the Bill of Rights. So many months have passed and there seems no adequate explanation for why these people continue to be held. After all, if the government had hard evidence that they were part of the conspiracy surrounding the attacks of Sept. 11, no doubt they would be charged, just as Zacarias Moussaoui, (thought to have been the potential "20th hijacker") has been charged and will be tried in federal district court. That's being handled in a perfectly straightforward and legal way. He has adequate counsel. In fact, I'm sure he has very vigorous counsel, and that's the best way we know to make sure the evidence holds up.
Between The Lines: Has Amnesty International and other human rights groups challenged the Bush administration's dealings with these detainees and their lack of rights accorded under U.S. law?
Joshua Rubenstein: Absolutely, first we issued this report March 14 and we joined a lawsuit with other organizations under the Freedom of Information Act to gain the names of these detainees. After all, in the United States it's certainly rare for someone to be arrested and held in a state jail, county jail or a federal facility, and not be allowed to know their names. That rarely if ever happens, and here it's happening in a prolonged way and it's affecting hundreds of people. So we intend to challenge that. Secondly, by issuing this report and having a press conference we're bringing it to the attention of the wider public and members of Congress and asking them to step in and raise questions. One thing on top of the other does exert pressure on the administration to act, we feel, in a more proper way.
Between The Lines: Would you comment for us on the idea that the Bill of Rights, during a crisis such as we're going through now, is somehow optional. I've heard government officials from the Bush administration use the phrase, "the Bill of Rights is not a suicide pact."
Joshua Rubenstein: Yes, of course the Bill of Rights is not a suicide pact. But, it's one thing to give the government a certain amount of slack in the days and weeks after the attacks, when we didn't know who these people were, we didn't know if there was a broader conspiracy or if there was going to be another attack in the immediate future. But here we are more than half a year after the attack, people have been held for three to four months in secret without access to attorneys, with irregular contact with their families. The government has not connected any of them as far as we know to the conspiracy of Sept. 11. .At this point, I think they're really flouting their power, not their authority under law, but their simple power. And that's very worrisome. The Bill of Rights was not suspended. I don't think we should feel we need to suspend these fundamental values in the wake of a crisis. I think we look to these values to help guide us through a crisis.
Now, to their credit the president, state and local officials have been very mindful of the tragedy that occurred during World War II when we in fact did round up of hundreds of thousands of Japanese Americans after the attack on Pearl Harbor. So everyone is bending over backwards to make clear that in spite of the fact that these 19 nationals were from the Middle East, they were Muslims, most of them citizens of Saudi Arabia -- that our counter- attack and the war on terrorism is not directed at Islam or Muslims in general -- and that's fine. But, nonetheless, that's no excuse, that does not give the government the power to go ahead and hold individuals, hundreds of them, without proper charges, without adequate contact with attorneys -- because that's just not how our system is supposed to work.
To obtain a copy of the report, call Amnesty International USA at (617) 623-0202 or visit their Web site at http://www.amnestyusa.org
See related links and listen to an excerpt of this interview in a RealAudio segment or in MP3 on our Web site at: www.btlonline.org
Scott Harris is the executive producer of Between The Lines. This interview excerpt was featured on the award-winning, syndicated weekly radio newsmagazine, Between The Lines, for the week ending March 29, 2002. ====================================
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