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On June 2 the Justice Department's inspector general issued a report criticizing the department for its treatment of 762 non- citizens detained on immigration charges during the 11 months after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. According to the report, many of the detainees--mostly men from countries with large Muslim populations--were held for unduly long periods of time and under harsh conditions. Some were kept in 23-hour lockdown, were put in handcuffs and leg irons whenever they moved outside their cells, and were subject to "a pattern of physical and verbal abuse" from guards.
The report received extensive news coverage and inspired a number of editorials, including one from the New York Times denouncing "The Abusive Detentions of Sept. 11."
Both the report and the media attention are welcome. But something is missing here--namely, acknowledgment of the fact that these same abuses were happening long before Sept. 11 and are continuing to this day.
As I write, my friend Farouk Abdel-Muhti is locked down 23 hours and 15 minutes every day in the county prison in York, Pennsylvania. He is handcuffed and shackled when he goes to the clinic or to see visitors. Guards taunt him and search his cell, supposedly for weapons. Farouk is nearly 56 and his health is deteriorating. He has been in custody for 14 months.
What is he charged with? Nothing. Immigration authorities issued a final order of deportation against him in 1995, and they say they are holding him pending his deportation. But Farouk is a stateless Palestinian, and no country has agreed to accept him.
Can the authorities hold him indefinitely? The Supreme Court ruled in June 2001 that most immigrants in Farouk's situation should not be held for more than six months. Farouk's legal team filed a habeas corpus petition last November asking for his release. The government responded with a claim that Farouk was interfering with his deportation by concealing his true identity. (The main basis for this assertion is that Farouk allegedly used false Honduran papers when he first entered the US as a teenager in the mid-1960s.)
In February, when his legal team pushed for a public hearing at which they could show additional documentation of Farouk's identity as a stateless Palestinian, the government whisked him away from the Passaic County Jail in New Jersey to southern Pennsylvania, 185 miles from his lawyers, family and friends, who are all based in the New York area. In May the government got the judge in the case, a former US attorney for New Jersey, to move the habeas case to Pennsylvania as well, basically taking Farouk back to square one.
Farouk is a well-known New York political activist, so his situation has received considerable media attention. Unfortunately, this is the only way that his case is unique. Another Palestinian we know of is being held in upstate New York while the government claims to be trying to secure his travel documents; he has been in detention since February 2002. There is a Cuban national currently in the Passaic county facility who has been kept in jail for more than four years "pending deportation"- -even though Cuba shows no interest in taking him back. These are just a few examples; only the US government knows how many people it is holding for no crime but being difficult to deport. We even know of immigrants who have their travel documents and have agreed to leave the US--and are still held in prison.
It is a fine thing to condemn the abusive treatment of immigrants, but maybe now we should actually end the practice.
David L. Wilson is a member of the New York-based Committee for the Release of Farouk Abdel-Muhti. Copyright David L Wilson 2003. For fair use only/ pour usage équitable seulement .