Federal judge: Immigration hearings should be open to public, press
By The Associated Press
DETROIT The government wrongly barred the public from immigration hearings for a co-founder of an Islamic charity who was detained after the Sept. 11 attacks, a federal judge has ruled.
The closed hearings were unconstitutional, U.S. District Judge Nancy Edmunds said in a decision released yesterday. Edmunds said that the Justice Department improperly barred the media and public from the hearings for Rabih Haddad, the co-founder of an Islamic charity with suspected links to terrorists.
"It is important, particularly (for) individuals who feel they are being targeted by the Government as a result of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, to know that even during these sensitive times the Government is adhering to immigration procedures and respecting individuals' rights," Edmunds wrote.
Haddad, 41, was arrested Dec. 14 at his Ann Arbor home on suspicion of overstaying his visa. He appeared at three closed hearings before an immigration judge in Detroit over the following month before he was transferred to Chicago, where he remains in custody.
Government officials have not explained why secrecy is necessary.
"Openness is necessary for the public to maintain confidence in the value and soundness of the Government's actions, as secrecy only breeds suspicion as to why the Government is proceeding against Haddad and aliens like him," wrote Edmunds, who also rejected government arguments that her court lacked jurisdiction in the Haddad case.
Edmunds underscored the courts' role in checking the powers of the other branches of government, said Lee Gelernt, a senior attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union.
"The government in essence asked the court to step aside and the court refused to do so, making clear that the judiciary has a critical and constitutionally assigned role and it must not be abdicated," said Gelernt, who argued against the closed hearings on behalf of The Detroit News, the weekly Metro Times and U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich.
The judge's ruling was "certainly a victory for the First Amendment," said ACLU of Michigan spokeswoman Wendy Wagenheim.
A separate ACLU lawsuit pending in New Jersey seeks access to information about hundreds of people believed detained there as part of the terrorism investigation, Gelernt said.
"Our understanding is that everywhere there are so-called Sept. 11 detainees, there are closed hearings," he said. "We suspect they're all over the country. The majority appear to be in New Jersey but nobody can be exactly certain, given all the secrecy."
The ACLU filed one of three lawsuits that named Attorney General John Ashcroft, U.S. Chief Immigration Judge Michael Creppy and U.S. Immigration Judge Elizabeth Hacker in Detroit as defendants.
Creppy issued a Sept. 21 memorandum instructing judges to close hearings involving detainees whose cases were designated as having "special interest" to the FBI.
The ACLU is challenging that sweeping effort, not the government's ability to request that certain hearings be closed. Government lawyers contend the Creppy directive doesn't infringe upon due-process rights.
The Justice Department had not immediately decided how to respond to Edmunds' ruling, said Charles Miller, a spokesman for the agency's Civil Division in Washington.
"We're going to review it and then decide what to do next," he said.
Haddad also filed suit to open his hearings. One of his lawyers, Ashraf Nubani, called Edmunds' ruling a rebuke to the government's treatment of his client.
"We thought having closed hearings, especially where Congress and the law calls for open hearings in immigration cases, was inherently unfair, and future hearings should be open," Nubani said.
The Detroit Free Press joined The Ann Arbor News in a separate, related lawsuit seeking to open the Haddad hearings. The newspapers are demanding that Hacker turn over transcripts of the three closed hearings, said their attorney, Herschel Fink.
Fink said yesterday's decision "is clearly a home run for the public's right to know what our government is doing."
Haddad, a native and citizen of Lebanon, was arrested the same day federal agents raided and later shut down the Bridgeview, Ill., offices of the Global Relief Foundation.
The government says the group, which Haddad co-founded, is suspected of funding terrorist operations overseas. Global Relief denies that and says it sends money to Islamic countries for humanitarian purposes only.
The government also is trying to expel Haddad's wife, Salma al-Rushaid, and three of their four children. Al-Rushaid, like her husband, is accused of overstaying her visa.
Haddad's next hearing was set for April 10. "We would want to attend if for no other reason that we can, and would, do so," Fink said. "We want to watch."
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