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Background: Sept. 11 Dragnet

April 3, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


BETTY ANN BOWSER: The wave of arrests and detentions of Middle Easterners and South Asians began within hours of the terror attacks.

On September 12, two Indian nationals carrying box cutters were arrested in Texas and charged them with credit card fraud. The next day at New York area airports, police detained ten people of Middle Eastern descent.

In October, Attorney General John Ashcroft defended the arrests comparing them with the government’s crackdown on organized crime in the 1960s.

JOHN ASHCROFT: Robert Kennedy’s Justice Department, it is said, would arrest mobsters for spitting on the sidewalk if it would help in the battle against organized crime. Let the terrorists among us be warned: If you overstay your visas even by one day, we will arrest you. If you violate a local law, we will hope that you will, and work to make sure that you’re put in jail and be kept in custody as long as possible.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: But many detainees, like Yemeni native Lamia Sobhi, have complained about their treatment. She spent 16 days in jail for visa violations and was not allowed to wear her headscarf.

LAMIA SOBHI, Former Detainee: I was basically scared because they really scared me, and I didn’t want to break down and cry in front of them.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Syed Mahmood Hassan, who’s back home now in New Jersey, was arrested and kept in jail for five weeks, even though he was never linked to terrorism.

SYED MAHMOOD HASSAN, Former Detainee: After this happened with me, I am feeling very uncomfortable now, because I am also afraid that anything can happen any time.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: A new report by Amnesty International found that: “Most prisoners were men of Arab or South Asian origin…a number of detainees continue to be deprived of certain basic human rights” — including medical attention and access to an attorney.

The Justice Department’s decision to study the treatment of detainees comes after months of complaints about the treatment of those placed in custody. At the end of October, more than 1,200 people were in custody. However, the Justice Department will not release their names or details about most of their cases. In November, the Attorney General explained why.

JOHN ASHCROFT: For those detained by the INS, I do not think it is responsible for us in a time of war when our objective is to save American lives, to advertise to the opposing side that we have al-Qaida membership in custody.

When the United States is at war, I will not share valuable intelligence with our enemies.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Since then, Immigration officials have released several hundred people who were later deported. The Justice Department has stopped issuing overall arrest totals. In February there were 327 in custody on immigration violations, but others are being held as material witnesses or on unrelated criminal charges.

Civil rights groups have also criticized the Justice Department’s targeting of so- called absconders–another 6,000 men from Middle Eastern and South Asian countries who had violated or overstayed their visas. Now federal agents are trying to find those men hoping to arrest and deport them.

The Bush Administration is also under fire for seeking voluntary interviews with some 8,000 additional men from countries on the U.S. Terrorism list. Ashcroft insists the ongoing process is legitimate.

JOHN ASHCROFT: We’re being as kind and fair and gentle as we can in terms of inviting people to participate in helping us. And we have not identified people based on their ethnic origin. We have identified individuals who are not citizens, but based on the country which issued their passports.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The Attorney General said it was these persons’ “responsibility” to help the government prevent new attacks.