'Terror' suspects to be questioned for second time

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The American Justice Department has ordered a second round of "voluntary" interviews with thousands of detained Middle Eastern men, a move civil rights groups and some law enforcement officials believe will serve only to antagonise innocent Muslims further.

John Ashcroft, the Attorney General, said he hoped the interviews would either lead to co-conspirators in the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Centre, or else help to prevent attacks.

About 3,000 people – all Middle Eastern men aged between 18 and 46 who have arrived in the United States since October – have been earmarked for questioning. Mr Ashcroft conceded, however, that the last round of interviews, announced in November and focusing on nearly 5,000 people, netted very little information and only three arrests, none on terrorist- related charges.

The government was able to talk to less than half the people on its list, and investigators with the Justice Department have been quoted as saying they thought the exercise was a waste of time.

Arab-American groups wasted no time in denouncing the new plan yesterday. "It was a mistake the first time around," said James Zogby, the president of the Arab-American Institute in Washington. "This only compounds the error by repeating it." John Conyers, a Democratic congressman from a heavily Arab constituency in and around Detroit, called the interviews "a prime example of the Attorney General's wartime propaganda machine".

Mr Ashcroft's handling of the 11 September attacks has come in for widespread criticism because he successfully lobbied for vastly increased powers of surveillance, detention and judicial secrecy with almost no concrete results.

Just one man, the French national and suspected "20th hijacker" Zacarias Moussaoui, has been indicted on terror- related offences, and only a handful of the hundreds of people taken into custody over the past six months are suspected of related criminal activity.

At the same time, up to 2,000 Arab and south Asian men have been detained, usually on minor visa infractions, and left for months with little or no access to lawyers, family or basic information on why they are being held.

Mr Ashcroft argued that the voluntary interviews themselves might be serving as a deterrent. "Potential terrorists hiding in our communities knew that law enforcement was on the job in their neighbourhoods," he said.

"Such a climate could cause would-be terrorists to scale back, delay or abandon their plans altogether."

That argument did not convince Arab-American leaders, who said the most tangible effect of the interviews was to scare people. Ziad Asali, the president of the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee, said: "The Arab-American community is as committed as any other segment of American society to ensuring our nation's security, but this is clearly a form of racial profiling which we believe has no place in American law enforcement."

The criticism of Mr Ashcroft coincided with reaction to the details of the military tribunal America plans to use to try captured Taliban and al-Qa'ida fighters. The plans include some acknowledgement of international concerns about due process, but still deny defendants the right to appeal to civilian courts. The American Civil Liberties Union said this would be a violation of "basic American, and international, ideals of fairness and justice".