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June 28, 2005

Rights Groups Detail Growing Police State

by William Fisher

The FBI is carrying out "unwarranted investigations for religious or political reasons," according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which charges that "the agency has sunk back into the kind of political monitoring it did in the 1960s and 1970s."

The Washington-based advocacy group said a series of FBI inquiries across the country shows that the agency is conducting investigations based on the targets' political activities or religious affiliations.

Representing 14 individuals and nine organizations, the ACLU has filed requests under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act seeking access to any investigative files the FBI may have on them. The ACLU also has filed a separate request for information on FBI investigations, particularly on Muslim individuals and organizations Although most of the requests were filed in St. Louis, ACLU affiliates and branches in Rhode Island, Idaho, and Kentucky also have filed similar requests.

Among others who filed the information requests are peace activist Bill Ramsey, peace activist and Holocaust survivor Hedy Epstein, and American Muslim magazine editor Sheila Musaji.

Organizations include those that were opposed to the Iraq invasion, a group advocating for workers' rights and environmental issues, as well as the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).

The ACLU says the FBI's conduct is "eerily reminiscent" of the days of J. Edgar Hoover, the agency's controversial first director. In the 1950s, the FBI went after alleged communists and "fellow travelers." In the 1960s, the target was the anti-Vietnam peace movement.

Meanwhile, the ACLU and another advocacy group, Human Rights Watch (HRW), charged in a new study that the George W. Bush administration has perverted the system of due process "beyond recognition" in jailing at least 70 terror suspects as "material witnesses" since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The groups are calling on Congress to impose tougher safeguards.

The report, released Monday, found that the 70 suspects – 25 percent of them U.S. citizens and all but one Muslim men – were jailed for weeks or months at a time in U.S. facilities without being charged with a crime.

Seven men have since been charged with supporting terrorism, and four have been convicted to date, the report said.

It charges that many of the men who were held as material witnesses were "thrust into a Kafkaesque world of indefinite detention without charges, secret evidence, and baseless accusations."

The new report reflects an effort by civil rights groups to expand the current PATRIOT Act debate to a range of other legal tools that the Bush administration is using in its campaign against terrorism.

The current material witness law, enacted by Congress in 1984, allows federal authorities to hold a person indefinitely if they suspect he has information about a crime and may be unwilling to cooperate or poses a risk of fleeing.

The law has been used for many years to compel the testimony of thousands of illegal immigrants whom authorities feared would be deported before they testify in investigations into border smuggling and other crimes. But since the Sept. 11 attacks, the FBI has significantly expanded its use in terrorism investigations.

The Justice Department (DoJ) defends its use of the law, saying that it has sought to use it sparingly and to follow all legal safeguards allowing those material witnesses who are jailed to contact lawyers and to challenge their detention.

However, Lee Gelernt, senior staff attorney for the ACLU Immigrants' Rights Project, told IPS, "The Justice Department did not provide all of these individuals with the legal protections," adding, "More importantly, all of these individuals should not have been subjected to arrest and prolonged detention in the first place."

In their new report, HRW and the ACLU charge that the DoJ has abused the law in order to detain people as witnesses whom it does not otherwise have enough evidence to charge with terrorism.

The DoJ has not given a public accounting of jailed material witnesses since early 2003, when it told Congress it had detained fewer than 50.

The new study found that a third of the 70 material witnesses it identified were jailed for at least two months. Of the 70 who were positively identified, 42 were released without charges, 20 were charged with non-terrorist offenses, four were convicted of supporting terrorism, and three others are awaiting trial on terrorism-related charges. More than a third were ultimately deported.

Brian Foley, a professor at Florida Coastal School of Law, told IPS, "To detain a person as a material witness presupposes that there is a legal proceeding where the person's testimony is required. In many of the 9/11 detentions, the 'witnesses' never testified in the months they were held."

"Depriving the person of his liberty is supposed to be a last resort, because there are usually other, less draconian ways to secure testimony: the person can be subpoenaed, that is, required to come under pain of possible imprisonment if he fails to show up; the person's testimony can be recorded in a deposition," he continued.

"These alternatives were not used in the 9/11 lockups. The government has perverted these laws to jail people the government thinks, but can't prove, are criminals. The threat of terrorism shouldn't change our principles. To say we can't risk investigating people before we lock them up is to say we can no longer risk having a republic instead of a police state."

(Inter Press Service)

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  • William Fisher writes for Inter Press Service.

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