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Our law enforcement is beginning to look like science fiction


© St. Petersburg Times, published August 11, 2002

In the science fiction movie Minority Report law enforcement is conducted using a group of "Pre-Cogs" who see murders before they happen. The predestined murderer is then tracked down and incapacitated before he can act.

In the science fiction movie Minority Report law enforcement is conducted using a group of "Pre-Cogs" who see murders before they happen. The predestined murderer is then tracked down and incapacitated before he can act.

According to Steven Spielberg's dark vision, the future of state security is preventive detention. The prisoner may not have done anything wrong but he no doubt will, thus society reserves the right to lock him away. Due process is irrelevant when you have a society to protect.

Attorney General John Ashcroft would love Spielberg's 2054. The man itches for executive power where police intelligence is the beginning, middle and end of the story.

Since Sept. 11 Ashcroft has exercised his authority in a way that mirrors this nightmarish future. His Justice Department has been using preventive detention as a matter of course and makes no apologies for it. The immigration laws and the federal material witness statute have been used as a convenient means of jailing hundreds of Muslim men sometimes for as long as seven months, without any evidence of involvement in terrorism.

According to Ashcroft, there is no problem with this. Last year, he lauded the tactic in a speech: "Aggressive detention of lawbreakers and material witnesses is vital to preventing, disrupting, or delaying new attacks. It is difficult for a person in jail or under detention to murder innocent people or to aid or abet in terrorism."

Of course, this presumes the people detained have something to do with terrorism, and on that score, the FBI has been incredibly incompetent. The government admits that hardly any of the nearly 1,200 people picked up following the Sept. 11 attacks have turned out to have a connection to terrorism. In fact, only one, Zacarias Moussaoui, the so-called 20th hijacker, has been charged with a terror-related crime.

Still the Justice Department insists on treating these cases like state secrets. It refuses to disclose the identities of nearly 800 people held on immigration violations or as material witnesses -- most of whom have already been deported or released after an investigation into terrorist ties came up empty. (A federal court judge has ordered the names released, but the government has not yet complied and is expected to appeal.) At this point, Ashcroft's insistence on continued secrecy seems to have less to do with fighting terrorism than with keeping the public from seeing his department's illegal and sloppy methods.

Once we know who these people are they can be contacted for their stories.

Those we do know have disturbing stories to tell.

Shakir Baloch, a Canadian of Pakistani descent, was taken into custody on Sept. 20 while attending a driving school in Queens, N.Y. He was held at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn in a 6 1/2 by 7-foot cell for 23-hours-a-day and denied an attorney and access to the Canadian Consulate -- consulate notification is a requirement under international law. Within a couple of days Baloch was ordered deported, but the INS kept him in custody under extreme conditions for nearly another seven months. He was finally prosecuted for illegally re-entering the United States and sent back to Canada with no allegations of terrorism.

Baloch is part of a federal class-action suit brought by the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights. The suit against Ashcroft and others alleges that a large group of Muslim immigrants were held under cruel conditions essentially as criminal detainees without being charged or given access to attorneys.

Yes, immigrants should be deported if they were here illegally. But what happened to these men had little to do with their immigration status. Based on the flimsiest of suspicions, they were presumed guilty, not of visa slip-ups but of being enemies of the United States. It turns out, they weren't, and a great deal of injustice happened on the way to that conclusion.

Another plaintiff, Asif-ur-Rehman Safi, is a Microsoft Certified Professional and a French citizen. He was brought to MDC after being picked up at LaGuardia Airport and claims guards at MDC kicked him in the face and threatened him with more violence "if he even so much as smiled." Like other detainees, he was kept in a small cell without reading material or other activities. The detention lasted from the end of September until March, when he was finally put on a plane to France with no allegations of terrorism.

When Ashcroft couldn't nail foreign-looking Muslims on immigration violations, he had them held as material witnesses. It is estimated that two dozen men were held in jail and prison cells this way. Interestingly, many were released without ever being asked to give testimony -- the only legitimate basis for holding material witnesses.

The use of preventive detention is offered by Hollywood screenwriters as some creepy, distant dystopia. Thanks to John Ashcroft, the future is now.

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