Appeals court allows release of immigration-hearing transcripts
By The Associated Press
A federal appeals court yesterday lifted a stay blocking the release of transcripts from closed immigration hearings for the detained founder of an Islamic charity.
Meanwhile, civil liberties officials are sharply criticizing an Immigration and Naturalization Service order telling state and local governments not to release the names of people detained since Sept. 11.
The Justice Department said today it wouldn't continue its effort to block the release of transcripts of Rabih Haddad's U.S. Immigration Court hearings.
But the government will pursue its appeal of the decision that led to the release of documents and the opening of Haddad's hearings. At issue is whether such hearings should be open to the public and press.
"We will continue to defend the principle that the Constitution does not require immigration proceedings to be opened in a way that provides valuable information to terrorist organizations or others who wish to harm Americans," Associate Attorney General Jay Stephens said in a statement.
The announcement came a day after the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati lifted its temporary stay on the release of documents related to Haddad's case. That decision opened the door for the release of the transcripts.
"We have concluded, in regard to the single individual in this case, that the release of past transcripts of the immigration proceedings, as required by court order, will not cause irreparable harm to the national security or to the safety of the American people," Stephens said.
Last week, the three-judge federal appeals court panel temporarily blocked the release of the documents related to Haddad's case. But its ruling yesterday questioned the government's arguments about keeping Haddad's case secret.
"We recognize that the government alleges substantial injuries to the integrity of its terrorism-related investigation, but the likelihood of such harms occurring in this particular case is remote, given the fact that information about Haddad's detention has already been disseminated," the court said in its ruling.
The Justice Department said the documents would be made available through Immigration Court in Detroit. A court official said around midday today they would be released later in the day.
Herschel Fink, a lawyer representing the Detroit Free Press, one of the organizations that sought to open Haddad's hearings, said he wasn't surprised by the Justice Department's decision.
"I think that the chances of them convincing a Supreme Court justice to issue a stay were slim to none," Fink said. "The battle is essentially over in that regard."
The Free Press, The Detroit News, The Ann Arbor News, the weekly Metro Times and U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., sued to open Haddad's hearings. The Detroit News, the Metro Times and Conyers were represented by American Civil Liberties Union lawyers.
The appeals court said yesterday it still plans to hear the government's appeal of the decision by U.S. District Judge Nancy Edmunds to release the transcripts and open Haddad's hearings. A ruling on the issue could come next month.
Edmunds ruled April 3 that the Justice Department improperly barred the press and public from the hearings before U.S. Immigration Judge Elizabeth Hacker. She ordered that the government turn over the transcripts to lawyers for Haddad, the newspapers and Conyers.
Chief Immigration Judge Michael Creppy ordered other immigration judges Sept. 21 to close hearings on detainees whose cases Attorney General John Ashcroft designated as having "special interest" to the FBI. Nationwide, about 700 such proceedings have been closed.
Haddad, meanwhile, faces an April 24 hearing on whether he should be expelled from the United States for overstaying his tourist visa. He has been in federal custody since Dec. 14, when he was arrested at his home in Ann Arbor.
Haddad, 41, a citizen of Lebanon, was transferred to Chicago and remains in custody there after the three hearings before an immigration judge in Detroit.
Meanwhile, in an April 17 order, the INS said federal law supersedes any state or local claims to information on detainees. INS Commissioner James W. Ziglar said releasing the names could endanger national security and the detainees.
According to the most recent INS count, there were 327 detainees in custody in mid-February, most of them in jails in northern New Jersey. The ACLU says it wants the names so it can offer the detainees legal representation and assess how well they are being treated while in custody.
"This is the government codifying its right to secretly arrest and detain people," said Deborah Jacobs, executive director of the Newark chapter of the ACLU.
Ashcroft "is showing his total disregard for the state court ruling," Jacobs said. "This guy is totally out of control. It's something more likely to happen in Afghanistan or some other lawless country."
Justice Department spokesman Dan Nelson did not immediately return a telephone call seeking comment.
Ziglar's order puts in writing arguments the INS and Justice Department have used for months in saying the names should not be made public.
"Specific aliens detained under administrative arrest warrants may possess significant foreign intelligence or counterintelligence information that is sought by the United States," the order read. "The disclosure of those aliens' detention and the location of their detention could invite foreign intelligence activity counter to the best interests of the United States."
The order came five days before a deadline set by a New Jersey judge for the Justice Department and authorities in Hudson and Passaic counties to release the names of detainees being held in their jails.
Earlier this week, civil rights attorneys sued Attorney General John Ashcroft and other U.S. officials, alleging widespread abuse of hundreds of Middle Eastern men detained on immigration violations after Sept. 11.
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