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Senator Calls for Probe into US Handling of Detained Immigrants - 2003-06-04

A key U.S. Senator is calling for a Congressional probe into the Bush administration's handling of immigrants detained in the United States after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Senator Ted Kennedy spoke at an immigrant rights forum on Capitol Hill.

The forum focused on a Justice Department report released this week that details a pattern of rights violations of hundreds of immigrants rounded up after the September 11, 2001 attacks.

The Department's Inspector General says many of the detainees were shackled, physically and verbally abused, held without bail for months, and denied access to lawyers.

The report looked into the government's handling of 762 immigrants, most of whom were of Arab and South Asian descent, who were taken into custody during the nationwide terrorism probe. All were found guilty of technical violations of U.S. immigration law, but most were determined to have had no connection with terrorists. More than 500 have been deported.

Only one detainee, Zacarias Moussaoui, has been charged with any terrorism-related crime. He is awaiting trial on conspiracy charges in connection with the September 11 attacks.

Pramila Jayapal, a civil rights advocate in the state of Washington, applauds the Bush administration's desire to crack down on terrorism. But she said it should not be done at the expense of immigrants.

"In the cities and towns of America, in homes, schools, and workplaces, and in the gathering places of immigrant groups across the country that have contributed so richly to this country, there is another terror: and that is the terror of being detained, of being deported, of being visited by the FBI without a hearing, without charges and without sufficient judicial process," she said.

The forum heard from a number of those detained. Among them was Peymon Assadinia of California, who fled Iran nearly two decades ago, and is now married to a U.S. citizen. He was detained when he voluntarily registered with the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

"They had my passport, and I told them it was expired, and that I had never left the country in the 19 years, the better half of my life, which I had lived in the U.S.A.," he said. "I was taken to what seemed to be the basement. I was searched and only then told that I was being arrested for overstaying my visa. I am terrified to be here, I need to tell you folks this. I am terrified to be here but this testimony needs to be said and it needs to be heard."

Mr. Assadinia was held for nine days in several holding cells, shuttling between various cities by bus and airplane, his feet and hands shackled. He is now subject to deportation proceedings.

Nadin Hamoui and her parents were detained for nine months by the INS after they were taken into custody in an early morning raid at their home.

Her family, who fled Syria more than a decade ago, is also the focus of deportation hearings by the INS. When he lived in Syria, her father was a pilot who flew planes carrying Syrian leaders, and was falsely accused of trying to kill a Syrian official. Ms. Hamoui says her father could face death if he returns.

"Yes, I was born into an Arab home, I speak the Arabic language, and I am Muslim," she said. "But this is my home. I've been here 11 years, and I will not be turned away because I am an Arab muslim."

Senator Ted Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, deplored the U.S. government's handling of the detainees.

"This is happening in the United States of America and it is wrong," stated Mr. Kennedy. "It is not what this country is about."

Mr. Kennedy, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is calling on the panel to conduct a complete review of the Justice Department Inspector General's findings.

"The Department of Justice did not distinguish between its pursuit of terrorist suspects and the people they found along the way who had committed minor immigration violations," he said. "The selective detention and other abuses committed by the department violate the fundamental rights and protections on which our country was founded."

A spokeswoman for the Justice Department has defended her agency's handling of detainees, saying it was within the law.

Non-citizens, including illegal immigrants, do not have the same rights as citizens and the government has wide authority to hold and deport people who break immigration laws.