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Justice wants detainee case kept secret

Algerian man protesting detention after 9/11

From Bill Mears
CNN Washington Bureau

Algerian man protesting detention after 9/11

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Justice Department has taken the unusual step of asking the U.S. Supreme Court to preserve the secrecy surrounding the detention of an Algerian man shortly after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

In a one-paragraph note sent to the high court, Solicitor General Ted Olson requested that the justices keep the paperwork and their deliberations secret while the case is under appeal.

Olson wrote: "This matter pertains to information that is required to be kept under seal."

The high court has occasionally kept parts of cases secret for reasons of privacy or national security, but it is extremely rare for the entire proceedings to be kept secret.

In November, the justices asked the Bush administration to justify the secrecy surrounding the case.

Mohamed Kamel Bellahouel, 34, is protesting his secret detention and the government's efforts to block the release of any information about the case.

Bellahouel was one of hundreds of mostly Muslim or Arab men rounded up after the attacks. He denies any involvement in terrorism.

"What happened was, I believe, unjust and inhuman," he told CNN in November. "And I think it was a lot of discrimination on it."

The Supreme Court has yet to decide whether it will accept Bellahouel's case and schedule oral arguments.

The lower federal courts have released almost no information about the man's case, and lawyers involved say they have been ordered not to comment.

Court hearings have been closed and records sealed. Bellahouel officially is identified only by his initials, M.K.B.

Because of a clerical error by a federal appeals court, more details of the case, including Bellahouel's identity, were inadvertently made public.

The government used similar secrecy rules after rounding up and detaining hundreds of immigrants, many of them Middle Eastern or Muslim men, in the weeks after the September 11 attacks.

The government in those cases justified a blanket policy of closing the immigration-court proceedings to the public by arguing national security and the need to protect information that could reach terrorists.

The issue now before the Supreme Court is whether such secrecy can be used when someone challenges the government to justify its detention.

In an appeal filed by Bellahouel, small parts of which have been made public, federal public defender Kathleen Williams asked for Supreme Court intervention "to preserve and protect the public's common-law and First Amendment rights to know, but also to reinforce those rights in a time of increased national suspicion about the free flow of information and debate."

Bellahouel is an Algerian waiter who was reportedly questioned by the FBI and taken before a federal grand jury as a material witness.

He allegedly served meals in the Miami, Florida, area to two of the September 11 hijackers, ringleader Mohamed Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi, shortly before the attacks.

He is married to an American citizen. He was taken into immigration custody in October 2001 and released on bond five months later.

He said he wants an open hearing.

"It's not just for us that we want this to be public, it's for all the people that have been detained and they can't get their cases unsealed, either. Or they can't speak about their cases or proclaim their innocence," he said.

Bellahouel's appeal is supported by a number of media organizations, including CNN. Those groups filed a legal brief last week, saying open hearings "protect their interests and those of the public."

"A free and open society cannot tolerate hiding federal court proceedings from public view," said Lucy A. Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, based in Arlington, Virginia.

"By participating in this case, the media aim to ensure that the proper balance is drawn between secrecy in the name of national security and the public's right to know."

Many of the details surrounding Bellahouel were first reported by the Daily Business Review, a Miami newspaper.

The case is M.K.B. v. Warden, case No. 03-6747.

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