United Nations Set to Adopt Ruling Criticizing Arbitrary Security Detentions of Immigrants by the United States

March 22, 2005 12:00 am

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Decision Focuses on Man Still Imprisoned in New York After Three Years

NEW YORK- In a stern rebuke to U. S. immigration detention policies, a panel of experts at the United Nations ruled that the government is violating universal human rights standards by continuing to detain an Algerian immigrant, Benamar Benatta, who was taken into custody on September 12, 2001, the American Civil Liberties Union said today. The U.N. Commission on Human Rights is expected to adopt the opinion during its 61st session, which opens this month.

"It is shocking that Benamar Benatta continues to languish in federal detention," said ACLU attorney Omar Jadwat. "Indeed, even the government's discredited 'hold until cleared' policy would not support his continued imprisonment, because he was cleared by the FBI years ago."

The ACLU filed a complaint on behalf of Benatta and others before the United Nations last January. It was a first for the group and is part of a growing movement to hold the United States accountable to international human rights standards. The complaint was filed with the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, an instrument of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, founded in 1991 to guarantee protection of the right to life and physical integrity, religious intolerance, and other rights. It is composed of five independent experts on human rights and constitutes the only non-treaty-based mechanism whose mandate expressly provides for consideration of individual complaints from detainees all over the world.

"America's credibility as a beacon of democracy and fairness is steadily diminishing as the Bush administration continues to commit human rights abuses both at home and abroad," said ACLU Associate Legal Director Ann Beeson.

Benatta is an Algerian Air Force technician who applied for political asylum to Canada on September 5, 2001. A week later, Benatta was turned over to American authorities, who interrogated him and then detained him. He was denied access to lawyers, harassed by guards, and physically abused while shackled. Benatta remains in federal custody today at the Buffalo Federal Detention Center in Batavia, New York.

In its opinion, the Working Group stated: "To keep a person in prison awaiting trial for almost three years without actually taking any procedural action on the offence with which he is accused contravenes article 9 on the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights." The Working Group also condemned the "high-security prison regime (involving impositions that could be described as torture) which, for no reason whatsoever, was imposed on [Benatta] while he was under investigation by the FBI."

The Working Group concluded its opinion by requesting that the U.S. government "take the necessary steps to remedy the situation and bring it into conformity with the standards and principles set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights."

In the weeks following the 9/11 attacks, U.S. government officials detained hundreds of Arab American and Muslim immigrants without charges, without access to attorneys and, in many cases, without access to their own family members. Though the government continues to suggest that the detainees were suspected terrorists, none of the detainees was ever convicted of a terrorism-related crime. Efforts to identify the men detained were rejected by U.S. government officials.

In its complaint to the Working Group, the ACLU charged that the United States government arbitrarily and indiscriminately arrested immigrants unconnected to terrorism or crime. Many languished in jail -- sometimes in solitary confinement -- for weeks and sometimes months, and the government refused to release them even when it became clear they were innocent of any charges related to terrorism. The Working Group chose to focus on Benatta's case because he is the only person named in the complaint who is still in detention.

The ACLU featured Benatta's case in two reports:

"America's Disappeared: Seeking International Justice for Immigrants Detained After September 11," which is available online at /SafeandFree/SafeandFree.cfm?ID=14800&c=206 and

"Worlds Apart: How Deporting Immigrants After September 11 Tore Families Apart and Shattered Communities," which depicts Benatta on the cover, is online at /node/25078.

The initial UNWGAD complaint was filed in January 2004 by ACLU attorneys Beeson, Jadwat, Jameel Jaffer, Lee Gelernt and Brigette Pak. Co-counsel on the complaint were Catherine M. Amirfar and Lisa Howley of the New York law firm Debevoise and Plimpton LLP.

For the ACLU's original petition go to /node/35399.

The U.N. Working Group opinion is on line at /node/35120.

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