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US Senate Questions Detentions of Terrorism Suspects - 2001-12-05

Critics and supporters of the Bush Administration's round up of suspected terrorists continue to clash in the U.S. Congress. On Tuesday, lawmakers heard from one detainee who was held in custody for nearly eight weeks.

Ali Al-Maqtari is a native of Yemen who was arrested as he drove his wife to her job at an Army base in Kentucky. He was taken into custody four days after the September 11 attacks.

Mr. Al-Maqtari told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee that he was harshly treated during his detention and threatened with deportation even though he had no connection to the September 11 events. He said, "We were interrogated by the INS [Immigration and Naturalization Service], FBI [Federal Bureau of Investigation] and Army personnel from 4:00 p.m. until 4:00 a.m. The questioning was harsh. The INS investigator screamed at me that I would be deported and said I was lying about my application, that there was nothing about me in the computer."

Mr. Al-Maqtari is now free on bond. But he says he worries that other detainees who have no connection to terrorism are also being treated harshly.

Senator Russ Feingold, a Democrat from Wisconsin, is a leading critic of the administration's domestic crackdown on suspected terrorists. Senator Feingold said, "I fear that America's beacon of freedom and justice is threatened as we face almost daily revelations of extraordinary steps by the Justice Department that snub the rule of law and threaten to erode fundamental constitutional rights."

Bush Administration officials are quick to defend the round up of immigrants as a necessary step to protect Americans in the wake of the September 11 attacks.

Assistant Attorney General Viet Dinh told lawmakers that 608 detainees are currently in federal custody, most of them on charges of violating immigration law. "We are very mindful that we will not sacrifice these values of freedom and liberty and the institutions that safeguard this freedom," he said. "At the same time, however, America is asking us to deliver to her people a different kind of freedom, freedom from fear."

Mr. Dinh says that contrary to some initial reports about their treatment, all the detainees have been given the opportunity to speak with a lawyer and their families.

Administration supporters in Congress are growing annoyed with the drumbeat of criticism from some Democrats and civil liberties groups.

Republican Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah is urging Democrats to be more supportive of the administration's domestic war on terrorism. "Not surprisingly," he said, "there is growing concern among the public that these rapid fire oversight hearings are aimed less at providing information and more at demonizing the administration and our attorney general for partisan [political] purposes."

The debate will only intensify on Thursday when Attorney General John Ashcroft is scheduled to testify before the full Senate Judiciary Committee.