Civil Liberties

American Gulag

Nine months after September 11, hundreds of detainees remain behind bars, shrouded in secrecy.
Nine months after September 11, an unknown number of people -- probably hundreds -- remain in jails, held on visa violations, as material witnesses, or without charges. Since late last fall, the Immigration and Naturalization Service has deflected growing public outcry over the detainees by simply refusing to provide information on them.

On June 12, a New Jersey state appeals court ruled that the federal government could keep secret the names of post-9/11 detainees held in New Jersey. At the time of that case, the Justice Department claimed that 104 detainees remained in custody nationwide, the majority in New Jersey county jails.

But those figures are at odds with the numbers compiled by human rights and civil liberties groups; the most recent report by Amnesty International, from April, estimates that “300 are believed to remain in Immigration and Naturalization Service detention, and an unknown number have been deported or released on bail, often after months in custody.”

The New Jersey ruling is also at variance with several other court decisions. On April 4, a federal judge in Detroit ruled that blocking public access to immigration hearings was unconstitutional. And in late May, a federal judge in Washington, D.C., heard oral arguments in a challenge to the federal government’s refusal to disclose basic information on individuals arrested and detained since September 11.

Amnesty International concludes that the detainees have been “deprived of some basic rights under international law, and many appear to have been detained arbitrarily.” Consider the case of Elyes Glaissia, 27, a Tunisian citizen living in Tacoma, Washington. Glaissia was arrested on September 16 on the basis of a complaint allegedly lodged by his housemate, Ann Andersen, who claimed Glaissia was violent and probably a Middle Eastern terrorist.

Glaissia had overstayed a tourist visa but is married to a U.S. citizen and had applied for political asylum. He was hardly a flight risk. Nonetheless, he was denied bail. Details of those hearings are sketchy: Attorney General John Ashcroft has ordered all hearings that might be related to terrorism closed to people without security clearance -- including defense lawyers, family and even the defendants themselves. Glaissia and many others were not only denied the right to see the evidence against them, but were effectively denied legal representation during their hearings.

The FBI didn’t even start a file on Glaissia; it immediately determined that he was of no interest. Evidence emerged that Andersen and her son -- transients who lived temporarily in Glaissia’s house -- hadn’t complained at all, but merely had struck up a conversation with a local sheriff’s deputy at a bus stop. Andersen, as it turned out, had a history of such fanciful stories -- at her previous residence, where a Mormon couple had taken her in, she reported back to their church that the couple were Satan worshippers.

The INS had made no sustained effort to find the Andersens, who defense investigators tracked down in Norway -- where they denied making the accusations detailed in the police report and testified that they weren’t true. So much for the INS’s only witness -- except that Andersen did confirm what everyone knew, that Glaissia was a “devout Muslim.”

At a hearing for Glaissia’s asylum application and bond reduction, the presiding judge ruled against him, saying he didn’t believe Andersen’s recantation. According to the April 26 ruling, Glaissia was ineligible for asylum because “there [are] reasonable grounds for regarding [him] as a danger to the security of the United States, and because there is a reasonable ground to believe ... [that he] is likely to engage ... in terrorist activity.” This was true, the judge wrote, because all of the September 11 hijackers, like Glaissia, were devout Muslims.

Such Kafkaesque logic is helping to keep many of the post-September 11 detainees behind bars. While Ashcroft works to expand secrecy to cover actual U.S. citizens -- as in the case of reputed “dirty bomber” Jose Padilla -- the hundreds still jailed desperately wait for a court to intervene.