Despite petitions by 20 different civil liberty groups invoking the Freedom of Information Act that permits the publication of government documents, the Federal Appeals Court in Washington upheld the government’s decision not to release names.
“We conclude that the government was entitled to withhold … the names of INS detainees and those detained as material witnesses in the course of the post-September 11 terrorism investigation,” the appeals court ruled, in reference to people detained by the Immigration and Naturalisation Service (INS).
The court also said the government was entitled to withhold the dates and locations of the arrest, detention and release of all detainees, including those charged with federal crimes, as well as the names of counsel for detainees.
Following the attacks, hundreds of people, mainly Muslims, were arrested and held under immigration regulations. A series of laws approved by the US Congress in the wake of the 11 September strikes provides for secret detention of suspects.
In a report released earlier this month, the Justice Department acknowledged that a number of abuses had occurred during the round-up of suspects in the wake of the attacks.
54 of the 762 detained were held for more than the 90 days allowed by the “Patriot Act” statutes, while another 130 secret detainees had no legal representation whatsoever mostly because most were only allowed two telephone calls per month.
Citing national security
Although the US Constitution’s First Amendment forbids all restrictions on freedom of speech and information of the media, two out of three of the presiding judges ruled in favour of the Justice Department citing national security reasons for their ruling.
The civil rights groups had asked for the names of those secretly arrested to be published, the names of the attorneys representing them, the places where they had been arrested and imprisoned and the reasons for their arrest – claiming the secrecy was illegal.
Tuesday’s decision follows the appeal on 15 August 2002 by the Justice Department of an earlier court decision that had authorised the publication of information.
Civil liberties groups have also been very critical of the US administration’s refusal to charge any of 300 Taliban supporters currently held in Cuba as prisoners of war, denying prisoners their legal and democratic rights under the Geneva Convention.
Prisoners are being kept in individual outdoor cages measuring 2.4 by 1.8 metres, and are subjected to systematic interrogation. No legal representation or access to their families is permitted.
Detainees may face the death penalty if tried before one of the US government’s recently created military tribunals. Normal rules of evidence do not apply in these non-jury bodies and there is no right of appeal to any civil court.