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RESPONSE TO TERROR | THE DETAINEES

Isolation, Secrecy Veil Most Jailed in Roundup

Investigation: U.S. agents use broad authority to detain individuals in the terrorism probe. No one is yet charged, but some are turned over to immigration officials.

November 04, 2001|RICHARD A. SERRANO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The day after the terrorist attacks, Tarek Fayad was taken from his home in Colton and whisked from Southern California to a detention center in Brooklyn.

There he remains, a 34-year-old Egyptian accused of overstaying his visa, jailed with 60 other Arab Muslims in a special unit. His jailers told him he could make one phone call a month, and it took his Los Angeles lawyer that long to find him.

"He last talked to the FBI weeks ago, and they told him everything was fine," said the lawyer, Valerie Curtis Diop. "Yet still he sits there."

Fayad is one of the 1,147 individuals--almost all of them immigrants from the Middle East and Central Asia--who have been detained and held mostly in secret as part of what has become the United States' largest criminal roundup of immigrants since it detained thousands of Cuban refugees in the early 1980s.

No one has been charged with conspiracy in the Sept. 11 attacks. Nearly eight weeks into this country's largest criminal investigation, most of those detained remain in federal prisons, county jails and Immigration and Naturalization Service detention centers. Most of them also remain anonymous, their status and whereabouts unknown to lawyers, families and their home governments.

The Times has studied the cases of 132 detainees, interviewing defense lawyers, diplomatic officials and some of the released detainees, and reviewing court records and other documents.

The analysis reveals a broad pattern in which federal agents are using the full extent of their law enforcement authority to sweep up individuals, question them and hold them for long periods. In many cases, when individuals are found to have no connection to terrorism, they are turned over to immigration authorities, where they often are held indefinitely.

Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft has repeatedly denied that detainees' constitutional rights are being violated, and Justice Department officials reiterated that position last week.

Mindy Tucker, chief Justice Department spokeswoman, declined to say how many of the 1,147 people have been released but said "a majority" of them are still being held. She said that most are being held on federal, state and local criminal charges unrelated to Sept. 11; that 185 are being held by the INS; and that authorities have "a small number of material witnesses" related to the terrorism.

Officials also have emphasized the dual role of their investigation: to arrest those responsible for planning and carrying out the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and to find any others who may be preparing strikes.

An FBI affidavit, obtained by The Times, is being used as a standard court document to persuade judges to keep detainees in custody. It argues that individuals should not be released prematurely because, first, "to protect the public, the FBI must exhaust all avenues" of its investigation.

But because of the lack of information, immigration law experts say they cannot determine whether the government is following the law or ignoring it.

"The big problem is the veil of secrecy they have drawn," said Lucas Guttentag, director of the Immigrants Rights Project for the American Civil Liberties Union. "Everyone understands the need for an aggressive investigation. This [Sept. 11 attack] was a horrific act. But they need to put out more basic information on the large number of people who have been jailed. That would give the public assurance that the investigation is being conducted in line with our basic principles."

Immigration Officials Had Broad Power

Even before Sept. 11, the government's legal authority in this area was substantial. The INS has the power to arrest and detain foreign nationals who may have violated the terms of their entry into this country.

In normal times, officials charge the arrested immigrants with an offense within 24 hours. They may then be held for days or weeks while the INS decides whether they should be deported. If deportation is ordered, a legal process that can last for years gets underway. In the interim, the immigrants are usually released on bond.

In special situations, however, the INS can move to hold immigrants in custody if they are deemed dangerous or likely to flee.

After Sept. 11, the government gave itself even more authority to cope with the terrorism threat. An interim regulation issued Sept. 17 said that, because of "extraordinary circumstances," the INS was free to hold detained immigrants for a "reasonable period of time" without charging them with specific offenses.

The regulation left it to Ashcroft, who oversees the INS, to decide what is an "extraordinary circumstance" and a "reasonable period" for filing charges.

However, the anti-terrorism law passed by Congress on Oct. 26 requires the government to file charges against detained immigrants within seven days.

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