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Rights Lawyers Cheer Decision on Opening Deportation Hearings

A federal appeals court drew praise from media lawyers and civil rights advocates after ruling that the government cannot hold secret deportation hearings for a Lebanese man with suspected terrorism ties.

A three-judge panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued a harsh rebuke of the Bush administration in its ruling Monday -- a decision that could affect other cases in the Sept. 11 terrorism investigation.

"A government operating in the shadow of secrecy stands in complete opposition to the society envisioned by the framers of our Constitution," Circuit Judge Damon J. Keith wrote in the panel's decision.

Lawyers who helped bring the lawsuit against the federal government on behalf of Rabih Haddad hailed the ruling as an important step toward achieving open and accountable government.

"The decision is a ringing reaffirmation of the public's right to see what its government does and a ringing denunciation of secrecy and the abuses that can flow from it," Detroit Free Press lawyer Herschel Fink told the newspaper for a Tuesday story.

The government wants the hearings to be closed to the public and the news media. Officials worry that some testimony, if made public, could hurt the nation's fight against terrorism.

The Justice Department released a written statement that took issue with the ruling. The department had not decided whether to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

"The Justice Department has an obligation to exercise all available options to disrupt and prevent terrorism within the bounds of the Constitution, and will review today's opinion in light of our duty to protect the American people," the department said.

The legal battle began after Haddad was arrested on Dec. 14 on a visa violation. The U.S. Department of Treasury froze the bank accounts of his Global Relief Foundation and agents raided its suburban Chicago office.

The Bush administration has said it suspects Global Relief of funneling money to terrorists. No criminal charges have been filed against Haddad or the foundation, and both have denied any involvement with terrorism.

After his arrest, Haddad had three closed hearings before a U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service judge in Detroit before being transferred to Chicago in January. The INS is part of the Justice Department.

The American Civil Liberties Union, several Detroit-area newspapers and Rep. John Conyers, D-Detroit, sued to have the proceedings opened to the public. Haddad's trial was to have started Tuesday but was rescheduled for Oct. 7 before INS Judge Elizabeth A. Hacker in Detroit.

On April 3, U.S. District Judge Nancy Edmunds in Detroit ordered the government to open the hearings. Edmunds ruled that the Justice Department violated the Constitution by barring the press and public.

The government appealed, and the 6th Circuit panel heard oral arguments Aug. 6. Federal attorneys argued that opening the hearings could give terrorists insight into the government's strategy in the war on terrorism.

They also said the hearings should be closed because they are administrative in nature.

Lawyers for the ACLU and the newspapers argued that the hearings are conducted exactly like criminal court cases and should be open.

On Monday, the panel gave the ACLU and newspapers the ruling they wanted.

"The court's decision clearly affirms that the government must be kept in check by the people," said Wendy Wagenheim, a spokeswoman for the Detroit-based ACLU of Michigan. "As Judge Keith so clearly said, `Democracies die behind closed doors."'

Haddad said he is seeking political asylum in the United States because he fears that he will be persecuted if he returns to his native Lebanon. He is being held in a county jail in Michigan.

In 1992, he helped found Global Relief, a nonprofit charity based in Bridgeview, Ill. The organization says it provides food, emergency relief, medical aid and education training in more than 20 countries, including Pakistan, Iraq and Chechnya.