WASHINGTON -- Even before he was accused of any crime, Abdallah Yassine was strapped down in the back seat of a police car and his legs put in shackles. Hours later, after being charged with violating his immigration visa, he asked for a hearing in front of a judge -- his legal right, under INS law. It never happened.
Nor was Yassine, despite repeated requests through his attorneys, allowed to face a judge during the 18 days he was jailed after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The 45-year-old Lebanese immigrant, who has lived with his wife and five children in a leafy Washington suburb since 1997, would be interrogated repeatedly by the FBI before he was finally freed.
It is unknown whether federal authorities had any reason to believe Yassine was linked in any way to the terrorist hijacking of the four planes that crashed in New York, Washington and a rural field outside Pittsburgh, killing more than 5,000 people. The Justice Department, which has launched the most massive manhunt in U.S. history for members of the terrorist ring, refuses to comment on nearly all aspects of its investigation.
But since Yassine returned home from jail two weeks ago, he remains confused -- and very much afraid -- over his encounter with the law.
Yassine, who speaks very little English, "never did appear in front of any judge," said his brother-in-law, Samir Shaban, who is a naturalized U.S. citizen. "And he was told specifically that these are orders from higher up, that 'We can detain these people for as long as we want.'"
He continued: "In Lebanon, there's bombing, there are people who come to our door at night and knock, but that's the way that country is. In this country, you expect better treatment. You expect fair treatment."
Yassine is one of 698 people -- including 148 charged with immigration violations -- who as of yesterday have been swept up in the secrecy-shrouded federal dragnet that began immediately after the attacks. Dan Nelson, a spokesman for the Justice Department, declined to say how many people were still in custody.
Legal experts and defense lawyers say this roundup represents an unprecedented use of federal power to detain people for unexplained or secret reasons.
"This is uncharted territory," said Joseph diGenova, the former U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia. "This is the largest criminal investigation in history. It's wartime, so there may be some additional secrecy things that have come into play. ... It's a strange mixture of immigration law, criminal law, grand jury law and wartime national security powers of the president."
But the shroud of secrecy -- which some argue is justified by the national security alert -- has made it hard for detainees and their attorneys to determine whether federal authorities are honoring the legal rights of those being held. Many complain that they haven't even been told why they are in jail.
Defense attorney Stanley Cohen suspects the federal investigators are grabbing at immigration law to find excuses to detain people.
"They basically used their immigration statuses as a pretext and ability to do what they want to do," said Cohen. "When you take a look, many of the people who have been swept up in these immigration sweeps are persons who previously had been identified as political activists in their respective communities who had immigration issues."
Most people detained in the investigation are being held under the authority of two sets of laws: the U.S. immigration code and grand jury material witness statutes.
Immigration visa violators, such as Yassine, can be held for an unspecified but "reasonable" amount of time before their cases are resolved or they are deported. Before Sept. 11, accused violators had to be formally charged within 24 hours of being detained. That rule has since been extended to 48 hours -- an order signed Sept. 17, in response to the attacks, by Immigration and Naturalization Service Commissioner James Ziglar. The anti-terrorism laws being considered by Congress would extend it again, to seven days.
After being charged, immigration detainees have the right to an arraignment hearing in front of a judge, according to INS spokesman Rick Kenney. They may also apply for bond release -- an option for release that likely has been denied outright in many cases since Sept. 11, diGenova said.
Experts suspect that the majority of the 148 people detained on immigration charges as a result of the attacks are Muslim -- and are picked up with the sole intent of being questioned by the FBI.
"It's easier for the government," diGenova said. "It's clear that they are carefully using the immigration status so they don't have to take certain steps in the criminal area where they might not have enough evidence right away."
The second area of law being used in the investigation -- the material witness statutes -- gives the government even broader authority to hold people without explanation.
Material witnesses are designated as such in the course of grand jury investigations -- meaning that their identity, incarceration and even reasons for being held are kept completely under wraps. Most material witnesses are held in organized crime or drug cartel investigations to protect their lives.
A judge must first sign off on an order designating a person as a material witness. Once that order is signed, however, the witness can be held for the length of the investigation -- which can last in some cases for years -- without ever being told precisely why they are being held.
"As a material witness, they're not being charged, so they're not entitled to know anything," diGenova said, adding that a judge may set bond for detainees but is not required to do so -- particularly if there's a flight risk. "My guess is that's being done almost universally -- that no bonds have been set for these people because of the act of war," diGenova said. "And that's uncharted territory for us in such large numbers."
"Before Sept. 11, 99 percent of the material witness orders would have never been issued," said Cohen, who defended terrorists convicted in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing case and has offered to represent suspected terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden should he ever be arrested. Now, "there isn't a federal judge in the United States, when faced with a ... sealed secret evidence assertion to an affidavit, that is going to say 'denied.' They just roll over and say, 'Give me your hungry, your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be jailed.' That's what's going on."
Defense attorneys and civil rights activists say they are having a hard time locating the hundreds of people who have been snared in the investigation dragnet. Handfuls of people in New Jersey and Texas -- including the high-profile case of San Antonio radiologist Dr. Al Badr Al-Hazmi -- charge they were swept up without any hard evidence linking them to the attacks. Al-Hazmi, for example, was confronted at his home by FBI agents at 5 a.m. and taken away in his pajamas, the beginning of a 13-day ordeal. He was held as a potential material witness and flown from San Antonio to Manhattan where he finally had access to a lawyer, six days into his detention.
When Al-Hazmi was finally released, U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White in New York said he "was not and is not a subject of this investigation." He was initially held because, among other coincidences, his name is similar to two of the hijackers.
FBI and federal immigration officers "see people who they would like to question simply because of a profile -- a very broad profile," said Joshua Dratel, a criminal defense lawyer who represented one of the defendants in the 1998 embassy bombings in Africa. He is not yet representing any suspects in the Sept. 11 attacks.
"It violates people's rights, and it's not really accomplishing anything in terms of the investigation," Dratel said. "In fact, I think it harms the investigation because what you have is all these resources going out on a wild goose chase and have people picked up for no reason ... because they don't really know what they're looking for."
Yassine is a case in point.
Yassine lives in Fairfax City, about 20 miles west of Washington. His immigration visa, legally obtained when he moved from Lebanon in 1997, permits him to work at a store in a neighboring suburb. But with a wife, a son and four daughters at home, Yassine took a second job as a baggage screener at Dulles International Airport -- paying $6 an hour -- to make ends meet.
On Sept. 14, Yassine was watching passengers pick up their bags at the Dulles luggage carousel when INS and FBI agents approached him and another Muslim man and asked for their immigration papers. When he said they were at his home, 15 miles away, they drove him there to pick up the documents.
"He was shackled already to the seat," said Yassine's brother-in-law and translator, Samir Shaban, who lives in nearby Springfield, Va. "Everything was tied down. When they got there, there were five children in the house. They told him to get out of the car, and he said, 'No, I will not let my kids see this.'"
Shaban said the immigration papers showed Yassine was allowed to hold down only one job, prompting authorities to take him to the Arlington County Jail for questioning, and eventually, to be booked on INS violations.
"Those were the worst four days of his life," Shaban said. "But once he was handed over, once the FBI passed him over, they told him: 'You're not our problem anymore. You're the INS' problem.' And he was relieved, because he knew right then and there that there was no linkage (to the attacks). Because at that point, you don't really know -- all it takes is an accusation, and they can make your life horrible, and you spend thousands of dollars trying to prove your innocence."
But it would be another two weeks before Yassine was finally released on $2,500 bond -- an agreement reached only after his story began surfacing in newspaper stories, according to his attorney, Denyce Sabagh.
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