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Terror probe raises concerns about civil rights

NEW YORK (CNN) -- As the U.S. investigation into the September 11 attacks continues, many civil libertarians said they are concerned about the possible violation of fundamental U.S. civil rights for those who have been arrested and detained.

Lawyers also said that the government will not say which people are being held or what the charges might be. In some cases, attorneys and legal analysts said, the usual rules governing detentions have been altered or even suspended.

Concerns are being expressed primarily for people detained or arrested who are of Middle Eastern ethnicity.

It is believed several hundred men -- most of Mideast descent, some U.S. citizens and some not -- are being held at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in New York. But no one knows exactly how many.

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The government has thrown an unprecedented shroud of secrecy over the arrests and won gag orders barring most defense attorneys from even disclosing their clients' names.

"We have only the slightest idea at this stage of how many people have been arrested, how many are still being held in jail, what they have been charged with," said Steve Shapiro, national legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union.

Shapiro said it is unknown where those arrested are being held, whether they are being given access to family and attorneys and whether they are being taken in front of judges.

The Saudi Arabian government is so concerned it is hiring U.S. lawyers to find Saudi citizens taken into custody and to represent them.

Student alleges abuse

Yazeed Al-Salmi was caught up in the terrorism investigation, calling the period "the worst 17 days of my life." Randall Hamud, Al-Salmi's attorney, alleges that guards abused and shackled his client while in federal prison.

Now home in San Diego, California, Al-Salmi said he finds it hard to understand the way he was treated. "I'm innocent," he said. "I have nothing to do with what happened."

A Saudi Arabian national, Al-Salmi was not charged with a crime. The 23-year-old college student was detained as a material witness and transported to the high-security wing of the Metropolitan Correctional Center.

Hamud alleges that people arrested are not allowed visitors and are held in solitary confinement. "They finally were provided a copy of the Koran so they could practice at least religious readings themselves," he said.

Hamud alleges frequent verbal abuse by prison guards -- and he said there may be evidence another client in custody suffered physical abuse.

"I observed bruises on his upper body, upper arm, back of his neck, welts on his wrists and ankles," Hamud said. "During the interview, I became very incensed about that because he informed me that the bruises were inflicted by the guards."

Investigators: More attacks may have been prevented

More than 800 people have been arrested, and more than 360,000 tips have been pursued in the largest U.S. criminal investigation in history. But authorities have yet to develop evidence that anyone in custody knew of the September 11 attacks, according to The New York Times.

About 150 non-Americans have been arrested because of alleged visa violations. Several hundred more are detained on charges of violating some other state or local law or without charges, as material witnesses, to make sure they will testify before a grand jury.

None arrested have been accused of playing a supporting role in the hijackings, according to the Times. Most are held on unrelated immigration violations, traffic violations or charges of falsifying documents, prompting complaints from civil rights advocates and immigration lawyers.

Additionally, none of the nearly 100 people sought by the FBI is seen as a major suspect, law enforcement officials told the Times.

Still U.S. investigators said the arrests may have prevented more attacks.

Ashcroft warns against rights violations

Federal officials, including U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, have repeatedly warned against the abuse of people detained and arrested. Ashcroft said recently that 170 hate-crime investigations have been opened.

On the same day he assured leaders of American Muslim groups that the Justice Department would not tolerate ethnic profiling, the attorney general defended his department's search for those who may have information about the attacks. Ashcroft said the government also is trying to prevent more attacks.

"We're aggressive in detaining those who violated the law and those who are illegally in this country and who are associated with or been involved with terrorist groups or who are sympathetic with terrorist groups," Ashcroft said. "But we will respect the constitutional rights, and we will respect the dignity of the individuals."

Federal officials said their only policy change has been that the Immigration and Naturalization Service is taking up to 48 hours instead of 24 to decide whether to bring charges. The U.S. government also may hold people indefinitely as material witnesses. Until September 11, that provision was used when authorities feared witnesses would fail to appear before a grand jury.

Material witnesses are people not necessarily considered a suspect but those considered necessary to solving a case and who can be arrested and held against their will.

David Cole, constitutional law professor at Georgetown University Law Center, said he believes the U.S. government may be going too far and endangering individual rights.

"I think it's clearly stretching the law, and it's probably breaking the law in many instances," Cole said. "The usual rule is in an investigation, you ask questions first and you detain only as a last resort. Here, it seems that they're [federal investigators] are detaining first."

-- CNN's Sheilah Kast contributed to this report.


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