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Thursday, 6 December, 2001, 10:44 GMT
Bush administration faces rights lawsuit
Egyptian Osama El-Far (right) arrives in Cairo after two months in jail in America where he was questioned rabout the 11 Sept attacks
Around 1,000 have been jailed since 11 September
US civil rights groups are taking the Bush administration to court over its refusal to release information on around 1,000 people, mainly from Muslim countries, detained in the hunt for the perpetrators of the 11 September attacks.

The plaintiffs accuse the US Department of Justice of violating the US constitution and federal law by failing to respond to repeated requests, filed under the Freedom of Information Act, for the names and locations of the prisoners.

The move follows threats to launch a lawsuit against what the complaint describes as an "unprecedented" level of secrecy.

John Ashcroft
Mr Ashcroft wants to question 5,000
The US Attorney General John Ashcroft has said 548 people are being held on immigration charges.

He has refused to give their names, ostensibly to protect any who prove to be innocent and on the grounds that the information may help Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda organisation.

Mr Ashcroft has said officials believe some of the detainees are members of Bin Laden's network.

'Right to know'

Steven Shapiro, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), one of some 16 groups behind the action, told a news conference:

"The American people have the right to know who has been arrested, where and why they are detained, the condition of their confinement and whether they are being given proper access to counsel and the judicial process."

In times of war the president ought to have at his disposal extraordinary means to deal with extraordinary circumstances

US President George W Bush
The groups, which include the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee and Human Rights Watch, argue that lawyers need access to these details if they are to hold government authorities to account on potential violations of individual prisoners' civil rights.

The complaint, the first of its kind since President George W Bush came to power, does not challenge the government's right to detain individuals.

'Critical' information

Mr Shapiro said the information was critical to enable the American public to decide whether the government was upholding the freedoms the country was fighting to defend.

"We will obviously review the suit," US Department of Justice spokeswoman Mindy Tucker told the Reuters news agency.

"The attorney general has been very clear about why certain information will not be released," she said.

Some information has been released on 104 prisoners charged with federal criminal offences.

Steven Shapiro, legal director for the America Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)
Mr Shapiro: 'The American people have a right to know'
Mr Bush has defended other measures sanctioned since the anti-terrorism bill was passed in late October, which have drawn criticism from civil rights campaigners.

These include a decision by Mr Ashcroft to allow the government to listen in to conversations between prisoners and their lawyers, and also an executive order signed by the president allowing the trial of suspected terrorists in closed military tribunals.

Further fears

"In times of war the president ought to have at his disposal extraordinary means to deal with extraordinary circumstances," Mr Bush said in defence of the order.

Concerns have also been raised about Mr Ashcroft's request for the voluntary questioning of more than 5,000 people who have recently arrived from countries where al-Qaeda is thought to be active.

According to a recent report in the New York Times, many US police chiefs are worried that the policy, which opponents see as racial profiling, will damage race relations in communities across America.

See also:

14 Nov 01 | Americas
US spells out terrorist tribunals
19 Sep 01 | Europe
EU acts on terrorism
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