The US government thrust scores of US-based Muslim men in jail without charges after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, US rights groups said in a report yesterday.
The men were held behind a veil of secrecy under a US law permitting the arrest and detention of "material witnesses" thought to have important information about a crime and considered likely to flee.
"A handful" were later charged with crimes related to terrorism. About half were never brought to testify, and the US government apologized to 13 of the men for wrongfully detaining them, according to the report.
"Muslim men were arrested for little more than attending the same mosque as a Sept. 11 hijacker or owning a box-cutter," said Anjana Malhotra, a researcher at Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
The US Justice Department has refused to reveal how many material witnesses it jailed in its counterterrorism investigations, but Human Rights Watch and the ACLU said they had confirmed 70 such detentions following a year of research.
Sixty-four were of Middle Eastern or South Asian descent, 17 were US citizens, and all but one was Muslim, the report said.
The men were typically taken at gunpoint, held in solitary confinement, harassed and in some cases physically abused, the report said.
Court documents were sealed and court proceedings were held behind closed doors. The men were largely denied the legal protections for arrested witnesses guaranteed under US law.
"Many were not informed of the reason for their arrest, allowed immediate access to a lawyer, nor permitted to see the evidence used against them," the report said.
"On the domestic front, the Justice Department's unlawful use of the material witness statute is perhaps the most extreme but least well-known of the government's post-Sept. 11 abuses," said Lee Gelernt, an ACLU attorney.