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U.S. Is Faulted Over Algerian's Detention

U.N. Panel Calls Confinement 'Arbitrary'

By Michael Powell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 22, 2005; Page A03

A United Nations human rights group has accused the Bush administration of arbitrarily detaining an Algerian man for three years and subjecting him to eight months of a "high security prison regime . . . that could be described as torture."

Taken into custody in New York on Sept. 11, 2001, Benamar Benatta has been detained ever since, though the FBI formally concluded in November 2001 that Benatta had no connection to terrorism. No one else taken into custody since the attacks is known to have spent as much time in detention.

Benamar Benatta has been held in New York since Sept. 11, 2001.

In January 2004, the American Civil Liberties Union asked the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, composed of five experts on human rights, to examine Benatta's case. The group reached its conclusions in September but did not release them until recently.

The working group's findings in Benatta's case are unsparing. The federal government, the group found, did not tell Benatta that he was under investigation for terrorism, denied him access to a lawyer and subjected him to a "high security prison regime . . . that could be described as torture."

"These practices violate . . . the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners," the panel wrote. "Their seriousness is such that Mr. Benatta's imprisonment constitutes arbitrary detention."

Speaking by telephone from an immigration detention center in Batavia in Upstate New York, Benatta said he staged a 23-day hunger strike last fall. A former Algerian Air Force lieutenant, Benatta came to the United States for military training and deserted. He has said he is caught between an Algerian government accused of severe human rights violations and an Islamic insurgency notable for its savagery.

Human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, have said that deserters from the Algerian military sometimes face "torture and execution upon return." The Algerian Embassy has in the past insisted that its military has not executed a deserter since 1962.

A federal immigration judge has upheld the U.S. government and ruled that Benatta should be deported. Benatta is appealing that decision and seeking asylum.

"It's a bit stressful to be here in prison for four years," Benatta said. "But I still believe in international law and the judicial system in the United States and I believe that justice will be served."

The U.S. Justice Department declined to comment on the U.N. group's finding.

Benatta told The Washington Post in 2003 that during his first six months in detention in Brooklyn, N.Y., he was held in chains and awakened day and night. He said guards slammed his head against an elevator wall. In 2003, U.S. Magistrate Judge H. Kenneth Schroeder Jr. ruled that the case against Benatta was a "sham."

"The defendant undeniably was deprived of his liberty," Schroeder wrote, "and held in custody under harsh conditions which can be said to be oppressive."

A short time after Schroeder released his opinion, the federal prosecutor in Buffalo dropped two charges of possession of false identification against Benatta.

The U.N. panel also criticized the U.S. government for continuing to hold Benatta on $25,000 bond while he pursued a political asylum case. Most asylum seekers are released without bond while their bids are pending. A spokesman for the federal Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement said that the bond was "appropriate to the case."

But the U.N. group disagreed. "The imprisonment Mr. Benatta has endured," the U.N. group wrote, "has been a de facto prison sentence. In no way can the simple administrative offence of having stayed in the United States after his visa had expired justify such a disproportionate sentence."

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