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Civil Liberties Groups Sue US for Information on Detainees

Arab-American and civil liberties groups have filed a lawsuit in federal court seeking to force the Bush Administration to release information about the hundreds of people arrested or detained since the September 11 terrorist attacks.

A Justice Department official said this week that more than 600 detainees remain in custody, most of them accused of immigration violations. But government officials have repeatedly refused requests for information on the detainees from civil liberties groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU.

Steven Shapiro, the ACLU's legal director says, "Since September 11, hundreds of people have been arrested, detained and virtually disappeared from public sight. That may be the way other countries operate. It is not the way this country functions. The American people have the right to know who has been arrested, where and why they are detained, the conditions of their confinement and whether they are being given proper access to [legal] counsel and the judicial process."

Some 16 organizations joined in filing the lawsuit Wednesday, the first of its kind, that seeks to force the Justice Department into releasing information on those detained since September 11.

Hussein Ibish is with the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. "We do know that almost all of those who have been detained are of Arab ethnicity and-or of Muslim religious faith," he said. "We also know that many of the detainees have been held incommunicado, have been denied [legal] counsel, have been denied access to their families. We know this because we have been speaking to the families and the attorneys of the detainees who have come to us as an Arab-American civil rights organization for help."

But Justice Department officials told Congress this week that none of the detainees still in custody are being held incommunicado. They also say all of those still being held have been allowed access to a lawyer.

Assistant Attorney General Viet Dinh told the Senate Judiciary Committee that the domestic anti-terrorism campaign is respectful of the rights of individuals. "And as we go forward in this process since September 11 and continue to prosecute this war on terror, we have tried and we have committed to preserving this balance in order to defend freedom through law, which is the work, after all, of the Department of Justice," he said.

Attorney General John Ashcroft has said he will not release the names of the detainees because he does not want Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist network to know who is in custody. He also says he wants to protect the privacy of those detained on immigration violations who had nothing to do with the September 11 attacks.

The attorney general will be in the political hot seat Thursday when he is expected to answer some tough questions before the Senate Judiciary Committee.