WASHINGTON - Foreigners detained as part of the investigation into the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States were held too long without being told of charges against them and were subjected to "unduly harsh" conditions of confinement, a Justice Department audit showed yesterday.
The department's inspector general found "significant problems" in how authorities handled the 762 foreigners who were detained for immigration violations during the investigation into the September 11 hijacked airliner attacks.
Some detainees were locked up almost continuously, were moved around in handcuffs and leg irons, subjected to abuse and had their cell lights kept on day and night.
"While our review recognised the enormous challenges and difficult circumstances confronting the department in responding to the terrorist attacks, we found significant problems in the way the detainees were handled," Inspector General Glenn Fine said.
The department defended its actions, saying all 762 detainees were illegal aliens, and after September 11 authorities were doing what was necessary to prevent future attacks.
"We make no apologies for finding every legal way possible to protect the American public from further terrorist attacks," said Justice Department spokeswoman Barbara Comstock.
Rights groups and lawmakers hailed the audit. They said abuses could be prevented if its recommendations were followed.
"The inspector general's findings confirm our long-held view that civil liberties and the rights of immigrants were trampled in the aftermath of September 11," said Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Senator Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont and critic of the Administration's anti-terrorism tactics, said the report provided "at least a measure of accountability".