WASHINGTON – Civil liberties activists, led by Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), denounced Attorney General John Ashcroft’s demand that Congress grant him wider police-state powers by passing the so-called “Patriot Act II.”

The condemnation comes on the heels of a report by Glenn Fine, Inspector General of the Justice Department, which revealed widespread abuses in the detention of 762 immigrants, mostly Arab and Asian, after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack. Conyers, ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, said the report shows that the Justice Department “deprived detainees of fundamental constitutional rights and has employed shocking and un-American tactics of torture and abuse.” Said Conyers, “This report confirms my worst fears about the unaccountable Ashcroft Justice Department, that its war on terrorism is just a war on the Constitution and basic human dignities.”

Conyers was responding to Ashcroft’s complaint in testimony to the House Judiciary Committee on June 5 that the USA Patriot Act contains “several weaknesses which terrorists could exploit.”

That legislation was rammed through Congress, mostly unread, a month after the Sept. 11, 2001, attack. Patriot Act II would widen the Attorney General’s powers to criminalize “material support” of groups designated as “terrorist” and empower the federal government to strip U.S. citizenship even from native-born citizens.

ACLU Washington Director Laura Murphy pointed out that Patriot Act II would dangerously expand the federal death penalty and “turn our justice system on its head” by requiring defendants “to prove their innocence before they even come to trial.” She also cited the Fine report, which charged that detainees were held an average of 80 days without criminal charges. The report said, “The FBI should have expended more effort attempting to distinguish between aliens who it actually suspected of having a connection to terrorism from those aliens … who had no connection to terrorism.” The report charged that the detainees suffered “a pattern of physical and verbal abuse” by officers at the MDC (federal Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn) and suffered “unduly harsh” conditions such as having two lights on in their cells 24 hours a day. Eighty-four detainees were kept in “lock down” 23 hours each day. Escort procedures included a “four-man hold with handcuffs, leg-irons and heavy chains anytime the detainees were moved outside their cells.” One detainee complained that MDC officers “repeatedly slammed him against walls while twisting his arms behind his back.” The Inspector General interviewed three other detainees who also reported that they were slammed against walls and “verbally abused … with racial slurs and threats like, ‘You will feel pain’ and ‘Someone thinks you have something to do with the World Trade Center so don’t expect to be treated well.’”

Murphy made it clear that the struggle is not over on Capitol Hill. “We will continue to work with Members (of Congress) from both sides of the aisle and with groups across the political spectrum to ensure that Patriot Act II remains nothing more than a gleam in Mr. Ashcroft’s eyes,” she said.

Conyers has led the charge in Congress on “Texas-gate,” the revelation that the Department of Homeland Security helped in tracking down 53 Texas legislators who slipped across the Oklahoma border successfully thwarting a redistricting scheme by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas). It would have added as many as seven Republicans to the U.S. House.

Conyers and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) wrote a joint letter to the Committee on Government Reform demanding an investigation of this diversion of federal funds intended to track down “terrorists” for “partisan political purposes.”

The ACLU opened its first-ever nationwide membership conference here this week to mount a fightback against these attacks on democratic rights. ACLU Executive Director Anthony D. Romero said, “It couldn’t have come at a more critical time as the government has resorted to detentions, deportations, and other tactics reminiscent of the Palmer Raids period which led to the ACLU’s founding 83 years ago.”

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