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Egypt, Saudi Arabia Concerned About US Detention of Arabs - 2001-12-01


Egypt and Saudi Arabia are raising concerns with the Bush Administration over the detention of hundreds of their citizens. Those citizens are being held in the United States on immigration charges as part of the investigation into the September 11 terror attacks. U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft says the detentions are constitutional - and a necessary response. But Arab governments say they are receiving little information about who is being detained and on what grounds.

The detentions in the wake of September 11 have now escalated into a diplomatic issue between the United States and Arab governments including both Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

A Saudi government source who does not want to be identified tells VOA U.S. law enforcement authorities have been knocking on the doors of Saudi nationals in the middle of the night. About 50 have been detained, he says, either on minor charges unrelated to September 11 or because they have names similar to those they want to talk to.

Egypt is raising concerns as well. On Thursday, Secretary of State Colin Powell told reporters he is looking into complaints from Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher that Egypt is being given little information about the more than 70 Egyptians detained over the past two and a half months.

"I know there is concern and anxiety over this issue. And I assured the minister that I would look into it,"Secretary Powell said. "There are some legal constraints and problems and there are some obligations under various international accords that we have."

David Martin, a former chief counsel at the Immigration and Naturalization Service, says one of those obligations is to inform other countries when their citizens are detained by authorities here.

"It does sound like there may be a problem in notifying their home governments," he said. "That's an obligation under consular treaties that we have with those governments normally to notify them or at least to tell the individual that he has a right to contact his consulate. So if that is not being honored then that is a problem. "

But Attorney General Ashcroft is convinced immigration law gives him the authority to withhold the names of those being detained, justifying this as a way of protecting the country from the threat of more terrorist attacks.

"We believe we have Al-Qaida membership in custody and we will use every constitutional tool to keep suspected terrorists locked up," Mr. Ashcroft said.

All of those being held he says, have access to legal counsel. But the Saudi government disputes that, with one source saying Saudi officials are unable to hire lawyers until U.S. authorities first tell them who is being held and where they are. Attorney General Ashcroft is expected to come under heavy criticism over the handling of Muslim detainees when he goes before the Senate Judiciary Committee next week.