Mistreatment of detainees puts all at risk

The man’s voice sounded desperate as he told his story. Rounded up after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, he has languished for five months in a New Jersey jail despite the fact that the FBI apparently has cleared him of involvement in the attacks. The last five months have been a living nightmare. “There is no sun,” he says. “My hands hurt from the handcuffs – it’s like living in a cemetery.”

Of the 1,200 people taken into custody following the Sept. 11 tragedy, some 300 are believed to remain in Immigration and Naturalization Service detention. Many of them, like this man in New Jersey and others whom we have interviewed, continue to be held in legal limbo, treated as if they are guilty long after they have been “cleared” by the FBI.

Amnesty International (AI) has the utmost sympathy for the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks and for the unspeakable pain borne by their families. We also recognize that the U.S. government has an obligation to protect its borders and our lives and to investigate crimes and potential threats to national security. But the government appears to have used its expanded powers to detain non-nationals in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks without the necessary safeguards required under international law.

Recently, AI interviewed seven detainees at the Hudson and Passaic County Jails in New Jersey, where many of those rounded up are being held. Our researchers found that the detainees lacked access to legal counsel and medical care and suffered verbal and physical abuse, including the reported use of dogs to intimidate them. Many were held for well over 48 hours without charge and one for 116 days without knowing what he was charged with. Others have been charged with routine visa violations for which they would not normally be detained.

Rabih Haddad, a Muslim pastor from Ann Arbor, Michigan, was arrested in December for overstaying his visa and denied bail, even though he applied for permanent residency eight months earlier. He wrote to us that he is in a six-by-nine foot cell, allowed one 15-minute call to his family each month, and is given food through a slit in the door – the same slit that is used to handcuff him whenever the door is opened. “Where do we draw the line between justice and oppression,” he asked. “I have been treated like the worst criminal you can imagine.”

Our research findings on the detainees confirm that a significant number of them continue to be deprived of certain basic rights under international law, including the right to protection from arbitrary detention, the right to have access to an attorney, and the presumption of innocence. We have received reports of cruel or inhumane treatment, including prolonged solitary confinement and heavy shackling of detainees during visits with relatives or appearances in court. All this would be unacceptable if it happened to common criminals but, in these cases, the vast majority of detainees are guilty of no serious crime.

This is no way to build a more secure America. It is no way to convince the detainees, their families and their communities that ours is a just cause. It is no way to “win friends and influence people” to support a worldwide struggle that President Bush has said is being carried out to defend the principles of freedom and the rule of law.

Violating human rights standards ourselves compromises our ability to hold other governments accountable for their own abuses. And that makes for a more dangerous world for all of us.

Dr. William F. Schulz is executive director of Amnesty International USA.