America's disappeared

She did not attend the Oct. 28 memorial service at the World Trade Center in New York for those who died there Sept. 11. Instead she wrote to President Bush asking his help to find her son, who had left the house for work shortly before the first plane barreled into one of the towers and she has not seen him since. She thinks perhaps he saw the burning towers from the train and went to help. Or he could have been picked up by the FBI, one of the more than 1,100 arrested since that terrible day.

His name is Mohammad Salman Hamdani and he is an American citizen. A Muslim, he came here 22 years ago from Pakistan. And he has disappeared.

In Texas before dawn on the morning of Sept. 12, Bader al-Hazmi was studying for an upcoming exam. The young doctor had come from Saudi Arabia five years earlier to become a board-certified radiologist. His wife and children were still sleeping when the FBI burst in.

Five hours later, after they had searched his apartment, they allowed him to call Saudi Aramco, the oil company sponsoring his medical residency. They then hauled him off in chains to New York where he was placed in solitary confinement; he had been mistakenly identified by the media as a material witness to the attack on the World Trade Center. He was fortunate in his ties to Saudi Aramco, otherwise he might still be among the “disappeared.”

When Mohammad Butt died, the Department of Justice (DOJ) refused even to dignify him with a name, saying only that “a 55-year-old Pakistani male ... who had accepted an order by an immigration judge to leave the United States, was in the Hudson County [New Jersey] Jail pending receipt of deportation documents for his return to his country of origin.” One wonders if his family knew where he was.

“The secret detention of more than [1,100] people over the past few weeks is frighteningly close to the practice of disappearing people in Latin America,” said Kate Martin of the Center for National Security Studies, one of 21 groups who have filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to determine the names of those arrested since the terrorism inquiry began. Of the total of 1,147 detained since Sept. 11, a small number – some say no more than ten – are being held as material witnesses. Their names, according to the DOJ, cannot be revealed until they appear before the Manhattan federal grand jury.

About 185 of 235 originally arrested for immigration violations are still being held. Their names cannot be revealed, nor can their present status be determined, according to the FBI; once they were determined to have violated INS regulations they were turned over to the INS for deportation. Although they are not entitled to government-assigned legal counsel, the INS asserts they have been told of their right to counsel and given the chance to use the phone.

Immigration lawyers, however, expressed fear that many of those detained are being held without either legal counsel or the knowledge of their respective embassies.

Most of the detainees are being held on criminal charges unrelated to the Sept. 11 attacks – in many cases only misdemeanors.

“Let the terrorists ... be warned. If you violate a local law,” Attorney General John Ashcroft said, “we will ... make sure that you are put in jail and kept in custody as long as possible. We will use every available statute. We will seek every prosecutorial advantage [to] enhance security for America.”

President Bush has signed hurriedly passed legislation allowing the FBI to conduct searches of homes or offices without the knowledge of the occupants. Extended detention with little judicial review is also now possible; warrants may be obtained to allow for the tapping not of a single phone but of any communication device used by a person under suspicion. The CIA is empowered to take part in some domestic surveillance.

In the words of The Washington Post, “This is panicky legislation that, in seeking to reduce one set of dangers, unnecessarily creates another.”

Alarmed as much by the secrecy surrounding the detainees as by the mass arrests and detentions themselves, the American Civil Liberties Union filed the above-mentioned FOIA request at the end of October. “We [wish] to express our concern ... about [those] who have been arrested and detained since September 11, and by the apparently unprecedented use of secret proceedings, gag orders and material witness warrants,” the ACLU wrote in an letter to Attorney General Ashcroft that accompanied the FOIA request.

The request itself asks for the names of arrested individuals, their ethnicity and citizenship status, the circumstances and locations of their arrests, the charges filed and the dates when they were filed, as well as the locations where each of the detainees is being held or the date on which they were released if they have been released.

Requested as well are the names and addresses of any lawyers representing the individuals; the names of courts involved in issuing orders sealing proceedings in connection with any of the detained individuals and the criteria used in determining the necessity for such sealed orders and finally the text of all policy directives issued to officials with respect to public disclosures about the individuals or their cases.

The organizations filing the request note that “there is an overriding public interest in knowing the activities of the government in detaining people in connection with the September 11 attack, as reflected in the statements by the highest government officials ... The [existing] curtain of official silence prevents any democratic oversight of the government’s response to the attacks.”

In a free society, according to the Bill of Rights, “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures shall not be violated,” no person “shall be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law” and “the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial ... and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.”

If we hope to preserve these rights we must not forget Thomas Jefferson’s warning that “the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.”