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Funds for secret-evidence cases cut

The vote by the U.S. House will not change anything, but opponents of the practice laud the move as a positive step.

By SUSAN ASCHOFF

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 24, 2000


By Washington standards, the amount was small change. Lawmakers were being asked to cut $173,480 in a $37.4-billion appropriations bill.

But when members of the House passed the amendment and refused to pay the U.S. Justice Department's expense of jailing immigrants on secret evidence, the vote became a rich victory for those who want the practice stopped as unconstitutional. The tally was 239-173.

Its backers had gotten what they sought: A strong statement against the use of secret evidence and some publicity in their support for their efforts to ban it entirely. The debate lasted an hour on the House floor Thursday evening.

"It was the dream I had wished for, that members of Congress would stand up and say, "That's not right,' " said Rep. Tom Campbell, the California Republican who introduced the amendment largely to garner attention and support for a ban on secret evidence.

"The key was to put them on the record" as opposed.

The victory is symbolic. No cell doors will swing open. The Justice Department will find the money for incarceration expenses someplace else. The deleted amount is based on the cost of detaining eight immigrants for one year.

The INS says there are four or five currently held on secret evidence; the St. Petersburg Times earlier this year reported eight known detainees.

But it sends a powerful message, says House Minority Whip David Bonior of Michigan. Bonior and Campbell introduced legislation to ban the use of secret evidence against immigrants as unconstitutional. The bill has more than 100 sponsors. Thursday's discussion and vote was the first significant airing of the issue before the full House.

Attorneys at the Immigration and Naturalization Service and FBI, both part of the Justice Department, say the immigrants jailed on secret evidence are tied to terrorist groups. The INS and FBI do not share their proof with the immigrants or their attorneys. Immigration judges deciding bail and deportation questions review the classified evidence in private.

The process makes it impossible for the accused to defend himself, say critics, and is a violation of constitutional rights.

In May, a federal judge in Miami ruled that Tampa resident Mazen Al-Najjar, held three years on secret evidence, should get a rehearing because he was denied due process.

In 30 known cases involving secret evidence over the last five years, the INS has not won one outright. As many as 20 are still pending. At least four of the immigrants have won either freedom, residency or both.

The vote on the amendment Thursday was a "good test vote" for stopping the use of secret evidence entirely, Bonior said.

"We hope the Justice Department will take note."

Bonior has visited with more than 250 legislators on the issue, and intervened for Al-Najjar with Attorney General Janet Reno over family visits and other conditions of his detention in a Bradenton jail.

The appropriations bill, which contains funding for the Justice, Commerce and State departments for the fiscal year through September 2001, is still pending in the Senate.

Meanwhile, backers of the legislation to ban secret evidence hope to get their bill before the full House before the August recess, as well as find sponsors for a Senate version.

Only four members of the Florida delegation voted in favor of the amendment. Democrat Jim Davis, who represents the Temple Terrace neighborhood where Al-Najjar's family resides, voted against.

Also voting no were C.W. Bill Young, R-Largo; Mike Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor; and Karen Thurman, D-Dunnellon.

Bill McCollum, R-Longwood, did not vote.

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