NEW YORK, March 13 -- Large numbers of immigrants detained since the Sept. 11 attacks continue to be held in a bewildering legal limbo, often without access to family members, lawyers or even basic information about why they are in jail, a human rights organization has concluded.
The 40-page report of Amnesty International, to be released today, is the most comprehensive account of the treatment of the Sept. 11 detainees. It states that a "disturbing level of secrecy" continues to surround the detentions and suggests "that a significant number of detainees continue to be deprived of certain basic rights guaranteed under international law."
In some cases, according to the report, detainees charged with minor immigration violations have been held in solitary confinement for up to 23 hours a day, conditions that "appear to be unnecessarily harsh and to constitute cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment." In others, the report states, detainees have been held for weeks and even months before being charged with a crime or an immigration violation.
"These are really issues that cut to the heart of our American understanding of justice, to say nothing of international standards," said William F. Schulz, executive director of Amnesty International USA.
Karen Kraushaar, a spokeswoman for the Immigration and Naturalization Service, said she could not comment on the specific concerns raised by the Amnesty report until she has seen it. However, she said the detentions continue to reflect the the priority the government is giving to the prevention of further terrorism.
"Anyone who is in our custody has violated our immigration laws," said Kraushaar. "We have very clearly spelled out standards for how people should be detained and how they should be treated while in our custody, and we hold ourselves to those standards."
Authorities have detained about 1,200 people, mostly Arabs and South Asians, in the United States as part of the investigation into the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. On Feb. 15, the Justice Department said 327 people were still being held on charges of immigration violations. Another group of more than 100 foreign nationals have been charged with criminal conduct unrelated to the attacks. Last week, The Washington Post reported that the government has been deporting and releasing hundreds of Pakistani detainees -- Pakistan being the country with the largest number of citizens held in the probe.
The Amnesty report was based on months of interviews with immigration attorneys, detainees and their relatives, as well as on visits to two New Jersey jails where Sept. 11 detainees continue to be held. Most of the organization's concerns have been raised in news accounts of the massive detentions that followed the attacks. Amnesty said it withheld the names of many detainees out of fear of "repercussions from other inmates or authorities" and out of concern about the security of the detainees' families.
According to the report, the lack of information and difficult conditions have reduced many detainees to despair.
"I have now been in solitary confinement for three and a half months and by the time of the next hearing I will have been here for four months," the report quotes a letter from a detainee held at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn. "If it hadn't been for the Koran and prayer, I would have lost my mind or had a nervous breakdown. . . . Why am I imprisoned? Why in solitary confinement? And why under maximum security measures? I have many questions and no answers. What are they accusing me of? Nobody knows."
© 2002 The Washington Post Company