Diplomats Protest Lack of Information
by Barbara Crossette
Barbara Crossette is a staff writer for the New York Times. This report appeared in the New York Times, December 20, 2001,
Diplomats in New York whose job it is to monitor the welfare of their citizens here say that as detentions of foreigners for investigations into terrorism drag on into the fourth month, they are frustrated by the dearth of information available to them on many cases and concerned by reports of mistreatment of some detainees.
The diplomats— officials in charge of New York consulates separate from United Nations missions —say they are hard pressed to explain to their governments and the news media back home why scores of people remain in detention, usually on minor immigration charges, at a time when the United States seeks the support of public opinion abroad for its war on terrorism.
Hundreds of people are in custody in the New York region, most of them at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, the Manhattan Correctional Center, the Hudson County Correctional Center in Newark or the Passaic County jail, diplomats say. Human rights monitors trying to check reports of mistreatment say they are being denied access to most of these prisons for the first time.
In protests to the State Department, diplomats in New York are accusing the authorities of violating international conventions governing access to detainees. Canada is the most recent country to raise the issue after a Canadian citizen disappeared on Sept. 20, and American officials at first denied he was in their custody.
Peter Lloyd, an official at the Canadian consulate in New York, said that the family of the detainee, Shakir Ali Baloch, who was admittedly in the United States illegally, had no idea where he was and asked Canada to locate him. Mr. Baloch, who was born in Pakistan, was finally found last week at the Metropolitan Detention Center. He told consular officials that he had been turned down when he asked for legal or consular help.
Canadians and Europeans are watching closely how the United States uses new powers of detention and trial. A European diplomat said that there had been considerable criticism of American methods in the news media there.
Some diplomats say that whatever the provocation, what they see as a failure to abide by international norms in handling detentions has undermined assertions by the Bush administration that the United States is fighting to preserve freedom.
One European diplomat said he was surprised on a consular visit to see a detainee from his country brought out in chains and forced to sit behind bulletproof glass at the Metropolitan Detention Center, although the man had not been charged with a criminal offense. The detainee told of being kept in close confinement with little space to exercise, and allowed to do that only on weekdays, the diplomat said.
Acting on such reports of harsh conditions, Human Rights Watch, the monitoring and advocacy organization based in New York, asked to visit detainees across the country but were flatly refused access, in contrast to past practice, the organization said in a statement on Friday.
Irfan Ahmad, vice consul for Pakistan in the New York region, where more than 200 Pakistanis are in custody, said in an interview yesterday that detainees told him they were left in the cold without blankets for 24 hours after being picked up, apparently to weaken their resistance.
Since then they have been housed with convicted criminals, Mr. Ahmad said, and are beaten or live in constant fear of physical assaults.
Mr. Ahmad said that many detainees— Pakistan has the largest number in the New York area — had waived the right to contact Pakistani consular officials, which puzzled diplomats. "When we ask why, they tell us the I.N.S. or an I.N.S. interpreter would tell them informally that their cases would be delayed if they notified the consulate," he said. The Pakistan consulate remains totally in the dark about the cases of about 100 detainees.
In Ottawa, Reynald Doiron, a foreign ministry spokesman, said that his government protested immediately after Mr. Baloch, the missing Canadian, was found last week, nearly three months after being detained.
"A diplomatic note was sent to the State Department in Washington, asking them to tell us what happened— how come consular access was refused and how come the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations was left aside, although Mr. Baloch had requested consular access and was denied access to legal counsel," he said in an interview on Tuesday.
Foreign diplomats say that they are told by American officials that the State Department’s hands are often tied. Moreover, diplomats are told that the Immigration and Naturalization Service, whose charges of visa or residence violations usually become the vehicle for continued detentions, cannot deport foreigners, even when ordered to do so by a court, if the Federal Bureau of Investigation decides it needs to question a detainee further.
Ambassador Mehmet Nun Ezen, a Turkish diplomat who serves as consul general here, said in an interview that 42 Turkish citizens were in detention in the New York region, down from 58 after Sept. 11. All were initially detained to determine if they had links with terrorists, he said. The immigration violations were then invoked. Some have since been deported or released on bond.
"The I.N.S. is keeping them, but the I.N.S. is awaiting clearance from the F.B.I.," he said. Normally, he added, immigration cases can be resolved in under 20 days.
"The problem for our people is that Turkey was among the first to help the United States, supporting the United States policy in Afghanistan and in the fight against terrorism," he said.
The Pakistanis find their situation particularly distressing, Mr. Ahmad said. The United States has relied on Pakistan in its battle against the Taliban and in the search for Osama bin Laden.
"I can’t talk to any of the detainees without this coming up," Mr. Ahmad said. "They say, ‘We are helping the U.S. in its war on terrorism, and this is what we get in return.’"