US attorney general John Ashcroft remains unrepentant despite a stinging rebuke by Glenn A. Fine, his department’s own inspector general, confirming enormous abuses of detainees since September 2001. In a report released on June 3, Fine highlights the mistreatment of 762 persons, some of them held by the government for as long as eight months without charge. The actual number of those arrested exceeds 3,000, according to Dalia Hashad of the American Civil Liberties Union (the Sunday Star, Toronto, June 8). Most of the victims of this barbaric treatment have been neither named nor charged with any offence. All of them were denied bond under a “hold until cleared” directive that, according to Fine, came from Ashcroft himself, although not in written form.
During hearings by the congressional judiciary committee on June 5, senator Maxime Powers of California examined Ashcroft’s abuse of the law and how his department violated individuals’ rights. Far from admitting any mistake, Ashcroft wants even greater powers under what is called “Patriot Act II”, which would extend the powers of his department as well as of the FBI; the first so-called Patriot Act was passed in October 2001. Ashcroft admitted that his department’s policy is to detain people who are in the country illegally for as long as it takes to clear them before they are deported. “Our ability to prevent another catastrophic attack on American soil would be more difficult, if not impossible, without the Patriot Act,” Ashcroft asserted. “It has been the key weapon used across America in successful counter-terrorist operations to protect innocent Americans from the deadly plans of terrorists.”
Ashcroft is not being truthful. Not one of the 3,000 detained by the Justice department has been linked to any terrorist activity. Only Zaccarious Moussaoui, a French citizen of Moroccan descent, who was arrested in August 2001, when the Patriot Act was not even on the law book, is on trial for charges relating to terrorism. He has demanded that Ramzi al-Shibh, arrested in Pakistan last October, be brought as a witness to his trial. The chief government prosecutor refuses to allow al-Shibh to be questioned in court, fearing that this would expose the government’s case as hollow. Such fears are not unfounded; last October Nabil al-Marabh, after spending 13 months in captivity, was charged only with illegal entry into the US, for which the maximum sentence is 11 months. Al-Marabh was accused in September 2001 of being involved with the hijack conspirators, who had entered the US illegally from Canada. Many others have been similarly accused of involvement in hijacks and terrorism, only for the cases against them to be thrown out by American courts when they eventually got the opportunity to appear there.
Thousands of other innocents have had no such good fortune. As Fine noted, the “hold until cleared” policy was never written down; it came “at least” from Ashcroft. He discovered an e-mail to David Ayres, Ashcroft’s chief of staff, describing the policy as part of a “strategy for maintaining individuals in custody.” There were two problems with the “hold until cleared” policy, according to Fine. One was that most of those detained had no connection with the September 11 attacks or terrorism. The other is that the FBI took months, instead of days, to determine whether a detainee could be cleared. Even US Immigration and Naturalization Services commissioner James Ziglar told Fine that he alerted David Israelite, Ashcroft’s deputy chief of staff, to the delays in the clearance process. Israelite claims that he does not remember the call, and Ashcroft says that he never heard about the delays.
Far from admitting that the existing law has caught no terrorists and that only innocent people have suffered, Ashcroft is urging Congress to extend the law to permit the government to hold more people indefinitely, and also to extend the death penalty. He argues that the current law must be extended to enable prosecutors to bring charges against anyone who is suspected of helping or working with suspected terrorist groups. Yet Ashcroft and his aggressive prosecutors, despite arresting thousands, interrogating them endlessly and even threatening them, have not been able to extract any confessions, much less achieve convictions. The Pentagon, meanwhile, has announced that the 650 held in Guantanamo Bay will be tried in secret military tribunals and can be sentenced to death without recourse to appeal. There could hardly be a better definition of state terrorism.
In another indication of how warped the thinking of top American officials is, plans are afoot to deport more than 13,000 Muslims who came forward to register under the INS programme between December and April. Citizens of 25 Muslim countries will be affected. An estimated 15,000 Pakistanis, according to figures given by the Pakistan embassy in Washington, have sought asylum in Canada. Those who believe that the US is a society based on the rule of law had better think again.