Civil rights, legal groups sue over secret detentions

Thursday, December 6, 2001

WASHINGTON -- The Justice Department is violating the Constitution and federal law by withholding basic information about some 1,000 people picked up by police since the terror attacks, the first lawsuit challenging government actions in the detentions alleged Wednesday.

Attorney General John Ashcroft and other officials have released fragments of information but will not reveal names or locations of detainees, the American Civil Liberties Union and other civil rights and human rights groups said in the suit filed in federal court.

"This secrecy is unprecedented and deprives the public of information it is lawfully entitled to receive," the suit claimed. It demanded immediate release of government documents that civil rights groups requested in October.

"We will obviously review the suit," Justice Department spokeswoman Mindy Tucker said. "The attorney general has been very clear about why certain information will not be released."

Last week, Ashcroft said he knew of no lawsuits filed to challenge the government's arrest and detention of people, mainly from Muslim countries, who might have some connection with terrorism. There is broad public support for the government response, but civil liberties groups have said for weeks they would challenge it in court.

One problem with mounting a court challenge is that so little is known about those detained. Lawyers would have to know basics about a case to claim that someone's civil rights were violated.

Wednesday's suit seeks the kind of information that lawyers would need to take individual cases to court.

"The Justice Department consistently refuses to provide the information necessary to guarantee the American public that those jailed since Sept. 11 are being accorded the constitutional protections guaranteed to all Americans," said Steven Shapiro, the ACLU's legal director.

The ACLU and 17 other organizations claim the Justice Department and Immigration and Naturalization Service have missed deadlines to respond to requests for documents filed under the Freedom of Information Act and withheld information that should have been available under that law.

The suit also charges that the government is violating the First Amendment's "right of access to records concerning judicial proceedings." There is no such specific right, but the First Amendment does guarantee free speech and the right "to petition the government for a redress of grievances."

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