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United States: Rights Group Denied Jail Access

Justice Dept Asks for Signature of Dead Detainee

The Federal Bureau of Prisons and the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) have denied Human Rights Watch access to detention centers that hold people arrested in relation to the September 11 terrorist investigation.

The INS has also said that it cannot provide information regarding a Pakistani citizen who died in its custody unless Human Rights Watch produces a document with the man's signature indicating his consent to the release of information. The man, Mohammed Butt, died on October 23 allegedly of unspecified heart problems.

"The government is saying 'trust us,' but democracies require more than trust, even in difficult times," said Allyson Collins, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. "No good comes from keeping the public in the dark about how detainees are treated."

Human Rights Watch, the largest U.S.-based human rights organization, requested permission in October and November to visit four jails and detention centers that hold people arrested in connection with the terrorist investigation. Human Rights Watch has now received denials for three of the facilities and awaits a response to the fourth request.

The INS District Director in Newark turned down access to the Hudson County Correctional Center on November 30 saying that interviewing detainees would not be feasible given the "extraordinary" circumstances. The wardens of the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan, and the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, NY sent identical letters on December 6 that stated that the events of September 11 required them to minimize "activities not critical to the day-to-day operations of the institution." Human Rights Watch's request to visit Passaic County Jail in Paterson, NJ, is still pending.

Human Rights Watch requested permission to visit the facilities because it was concerned by reports of inappropriate treatment and infringement on detainees' rights. Since that time, interviews with former detainees and with attorneys representing detainees have reinforced those concerns.

Human Rights Watch conducts jail and prison investigations around the world to ensure that the treatment of detainees is consistent with standards affirmed in international human rights treaties and internationally recognized standards for detention. The rights group has made numerous such investigations in the United States, visiting scores of federal, state, and local facilities, including the Bureau of Prisons' Administrative Maximum Security Prison in Florence, Colorado and more than a dozen county jails holding INS detainees.

On October 29, Human Rights Watch wrote to the INS, FBI, and the Hudson County prosecutor's office to obtain information about the October 23 death in custody of Muhammed Butt, a Pakistani national. Mr. Butt had been detained as part of the investigation into the September 11 attacks. In a December 6 response, the INS refused to disclose any information regarding Muhammed Butt, "due to laws relating to privacy."

In that letter from INS headquarters in Washington, DC, Human Rights Watch was instructed to contact the INS District Director in Newark if the group had further questions. The letter added, "when you contact the District Director, please be sure to have written consent from Mr. Butt stating that that office is able to release information concerning his case to you. This statement should contain his name and your name and his alien number along with his written signature."

On September 19, Mr. Butt, 55, was detained and questioned by the FBI and INS in connection with the September 11 attacks. Investigators reportedly found no proof of any connection between Mr. Butt and those who carried out the September 11 attacks, but he was held on immigration charges for overstaying his visa. Different INS officials made contradictory statements about whether he was awaiting a deportation hearing before an immigration judge or simply waiting for removal. Mr. Butt was never accused of any crime.

The Human Rights Watch letter expressed concern over Mr. Butt's death and posed several questions about his treatment in an attempt to obtain information about the medical screening and assistance he received at the jail, and the conditions of detention.

"I am perplexed by the INS's suggestion that we obtain the signature of a man who has died," said Collins. "The death of a detainee is a very serious matter and we urge the U.S. government to investigate it fully."

In recent testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Attorney General John Ashcroft said, "[T]o those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty, my message is this: your tactics only aid terrorists." Human Rights Watch believes that denying basic information about detainees and refusing access to detention centers prevents independent fact-finding and the acquisition of accurate, first-hand information.

The Justice Department should allow human rights groups access to detainees, disclose information about the detainees, including where they are being held, and provide information about the death in custody of Mr. Butt.

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