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US Lawmakers:  Detention Conditions for Terrorist Suspects Must  Improve - 2003-06-25


Members of Congress are demanding improvements in the way the government investigates and detains immigrants suspected of terrorist links. The push for reform is coming from both Democrats and Republicans.

Republicans and Democrats do not agree on much these days. But they apparently do concur on the need for improvements in the way U.S. law enforcement officials handle immigrants suspected of terrorist involvement.

The Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimony from a key Justice Department official. He has written a report detailing abuse and mistreatment among some of the 762 illegal immigrants rounded up in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks.

The vast majority of the detainees were cleared of terrorist involvement, but more than 500 were deported for immigration violations.

The report was prepared by the Justice Department's office of inspector general. It is their job to make sure that federal law enforcement agents are properly going about the business of detaining, questioning, and dealing with immigrants suspected of terrorist ties.

The report says some of the detainees held after the 2001 terrorist attacks were physically and verbally abused by prison guards.

That clearly bothered senators on the committee from both parties, including the Republican chairman, Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah.

"Abuse of inmates, no matter what the actual or potential charges, is wrong. It cannot be tolerated," he said. "And should any of the allegations in the IG's [inspector general] report be sufficiently corroborated, the responsible parties should be prosecuted to the fullest extent under the law."

The inspector general at the Justice Department, Glenn Fine, documented the instances of abuse, but also told the committee they were generally isolated incidents and did not indicate a widespread pattern.

Mr. Fine detailed other problems in connection with the roundup of immigrants. He said the FBI often did not try hard enough to differentiate among people suspected of having links to terrorists and others who were found simply to have been in violation of immigration laws.

"What concerned us was that there was not that attempt to discriminate between the ones where there was evidence or an indication that they were a threat, that they had knowledge or terrorism or were connected to terrorism, and the ones who were simply encountered and were out of status [in violation of immigration laws]," he said.

Another problem, according to Mr. Fine, was that dozens of the detainees were not promptly told why they were being detained. And, in many cases, it took 80 days or longer for FBI agents to clear them of terrorist involvement so that they could be released.

"Many detainees did not receive timely notice of the charges against them. Many did not get their charging documents for weeks and some for more than a month after being arrested," he explained.

The inspector general's report suggests a number of improvements for the Justice Department to consider. These include a much speedier clearance process so innocent people can go free and more careful consideration as to what kind of prison facility should be used to hold those suspected of terrorist links.

Democrats on the committee also complained that Attorney General John Ashcroft did not appear to answer questions. But the committee chairman, Senator Hatch, says the attorney general will be invited in the near future.

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