As he, his lawyer and a leading human rights group tell it, Yahia Meddah is a victim of a U.S. immigration policy that often detains asylum seekers and stashes them with common criminals in county jails that are ill-equipped to deal with them and that sometimes mistreat them.

Since his arrest two years ago, the 27-year-old Algerian has been held in four local jails, one federal detention center and three mental hospitals. He has attempted suicide at least twice and, according to Human Rights Watch, has suffered "psychological trauma" because of "abusive treatment" in jail and "indifference" to his plight. He claims to have fled Algeria in 1993 after anti-government forces kidnapped his father and sister and killed many of his relatives.

To the Immigration and Naturalization Service, however, Meddah is an unlikely poster boy for a human rights campaign. He traveled to 15 countries in Africa and Latin America, including Cuba, after leaving his homeland and eventually entered the United States in October 1995 with a false French passport that he bought in Colombia, according to his testimony in immigration court. He did not claim political asylum until INS agents arrested him in West Virginia 10 months later.

Noting that Meddah had assaulted a prison guard and accusing him of fabricating his claim, an immigration judge in Philadelphia denied him asylum and ordered him deported last September. The judge said he based his decision in part on classified FBI evidence that showed Meddah is affiliated with "international terrorism." Meddah is in custody, pending an appeal. He is under guard in a Miami mental hospital.

The case, featured in a new Human Rights Watch report on immigration detainees, illustrates the gulf that often separates rights advocates and the government over their views of people caught up in the immigration detention system, particularly those seeking political asylum.

The report, "Locked Away: Immigration Detainees in Jails in the United States," complains that thousands of INS detainees, including asylum seekers, are being held in local jails because of a lack of INS detention space. They often are mixed with convicted criminals, suffer abuse by local guards and are denied their rights under international refugee law, says the report, issued earlier this month.

"The INS is shipping immigrants off to local jails where they don't belong," said Kenneth Roth, director of Human Rights Watch. "This practice violates international standards, and it must stop."

The report says that the INS should not house detainees in a facility for criminals and that in general, "asylum seekers should not be detained." County and city jails often fail to provide adequate food, medical care or translation services, and a number of detainees have staged hunger strikes at local jails to protest conditions, the report says.

The INS says that it would prefer not to mingle its detainees, especially asylum seekers, with criminals and that it moves them when allegations of "inhumane treatment" in local jails prove true. But the agency says it has no choice but to use local lockups because Congress mandated increased detention of people subject to deportation, including legal immigrants who have committed crimes, without providing money to build separate prisons. Instead, the INS was authorized to rent vacant bed space in jails.

Nearly two-thirds of the agency's 16,000 detainees are held in local jails rather than federal facilities, the INS says. Their numbers have risen by 70 percent in the last two years, making INS inmates the fastest-growing element of the U.S. jail population.

But only about 5 percent of the detainees are asylum seekers, the agency says. Many more are "criminal aliens," often with convictions for worse offenses than the common criminals they are housed with, officials say.

Of 51 detainees the INS was able to identify from the Human Rights Watch report, for example, at least 25 are "serious criminal offenders," an INS investigator said.

Of particular concern to human rights advocates are about 2,800 INS detainees who cannot be deported because their home countries will not take them. These "lifers," as the advocates call them, are often stuck indefinitely in local jails, locked up for years after having already served time for various offenses. Most come from Cuba, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Iran or Iraq.

Among those named as victims of INS detention policies in the Human Rights Watch report are Soeung Chhunn and Min Phin, two Cambodians who say they were beaten by jail guards in the Orleans Parish Prison in Louisiana.

The INS said Chhunn is a convicted felon with 37 disciplinary violations in custody, including possession of dangerous weapons and assault on another inmate. It said Phin was convicted of felonies including armed assault and attempted murder. The agency said neither has complained of mistreatment to the INS, which has a representative at the prison.

A similar divergence of views marks the case of Meddah, who says he grew up in Algeria, the son of a prosperous farmer, and studied engineering in Italy.

In a telephone interview from the Miami mental hospital, he said he is a "political prisoner" who has never committed any crime but is suffering "discrimination" because he is "an Arabic Muslim."

In an affidavit, Meddah said that after he returned to Algeria from his studies, "many of my relatives were murdered, tortured, kidnapped and raped" by Muslim fundamentalists of the Armed Islamic Group. He said these "terrorists . . . sentenced me to death" because they "believe I am a homosexual and resent my friendship with Westerners."

Meddah said the terrorists burned down a "dress factory" he owned and killed at least 17 of his relatives, including a grandmother who was "beheaded" for allegedly "practicing witchcraft" and several cousins who were "tortured to death for money."

He fled Algeria and traveled Africa, living in various countries until he flew to Cuba in April 1995, according to his affidavit. He later paid $980 in Colombia for a falsified French passport bearing the name Pierre Wuilmart, used it to get through immigration at the Houston airport and took a bus to Washington.

He subsequently moved to West Virginia and married an American woman. Meddah said he came to the attention of INS two years ago when he called 911 after his wife, her daughter and the daughter's boyfriend came home drunk one night and beat him up. He said police found him "bleeding" and took him to the hospital.

However, according to Mark Roby, a Charles Town, W. Va., sheriff's deputy who responded to the call, Meddah showed no evidence of injury but was sent to the hospital because he complained of chest pains after what Roby called a "verbal domestic" dispute between Meddah and his wife.

INS agents arrested Meddah at the hospital. Since then, Human Rights Watch says, he has twice attempted suicide, once last year by cutting his chest with a razor and again this March by swallowing bleach.

"It's a really traumatic and upsetting case," said Jennifer Bailey, author of the Human Rights Watch report. "It's an example of the human cost of the INS detention policy. . . . When he is given at least minimum treatment and care in mental health hospitals, he markedly improves. But every time INS returns him to detention, he becomes extremely upset and suicidal. He is someone who should be paroled, whose continued detention in jail is really traumatizing him."

The INS says Meddah maintained his false identity long after entering the United States, fraudulently obtaining a driver's license and Social Security card and using them to open a car dealership.

Based in part on the FBI evidence, which apparently originated from the CIA, immigration Judge Donald V. Ferlise denied Meddah's request for asylum, citing without elaboration "his affiliation with terrorist organizations." Ferlise also said he found Meddah's testimony on his qualifications for asylum vague, inconsistent and generally "not credible."

According to a source familiar with the case, the secret evidence against Meddah charges that far from being a victim of terrorism, he was an assassin for a radical Islamic group in Algeria.

"The evidence clearly established that he operated as a hit man for a fundamentalist Muslim organization and that the purpose of his entry into the United States was to intimidate, and if necessary eliminate, opponents to that particular faction," the source said on condition of anonymity.

In the telephone interview, Meddah strongly denied any link with terrorism and insisted that he has "no problem with the Algerian government." He challenged the U.S. government to charge him if it has any evidence.

Meddah's lawyer, Joseph Hohenstein of Philadelphia, said that he has been denied access to the secret evidence and that no formal terrorism charges have been filed against his client. In any case, he said, the judge's brief mention of the evidence "only indicated that it proved affiliation, not actual terrorist activity."

Hohenstein and government officials said psychiatrists have produced varying reports on Meddah's mental condition. According to at least one, a U.S. official said, Meddah "is not suffering from any psychosis, and his suicide attempts are designed to try to manipulate his circumstances," for example by obtaining transfers from detention facilities. CAPTION: Algerian Yahia Meddah says terrorists tormented him. The INS has held him for two years, denying him asylum on suspicion that he has terrorist ties.