WASHINGTON -- The American Civil Liberties Union said yesterday that it has increasing evidence that civil rights are becoming "a first casualty" of the Persian Gulf war, and urged President Bush to speak out against "racist attacks" on individuals of Arabic ancestry.
Morton H. Halperin, director of the ACLU office here, said the federal government was using powers given it during the Cold War years to engage in "further unjustified limitations of constitutional rights."
One of the incidents he cited was the seizure of an Iraqi merchant seaman from a vessel in Baltimore last Wednesday night, and the seaman's detention in a jail in Salisbury for more than three days.
That event, Mr. Halperin said, was of doubtful legality even if the federal government did have authority to prevent the seaman from leaving his vessel.
An Immigration and Naturalization Service spokesman, Duke Austin, countered that the INS had full authority to hold an alien in custody "if it has a feeling the alien is going to enter the U.S. illegally."
In the Baltimore port incident, an Iraqi radioman, Jabbar Hamoudi, was taken off the container ship MV Al Wattyah by the INS and held until he could be returned to the vessel just before it left the country Sunday from Savannah, Ga., Mr. Austin said.
A spokesman for the vessel's owner, United Arab Shipping Co., said that arrangements had been made to keep the Iraqi crewman on board the vessel while it was in this country, and that the INS had been told of those arrangements.
However, Mr. Austin said that when the vessel got to Baltimore, INS officials "felt the ship was not going to maintain him in custody and was likely to let him go; they had no facilities to hold him on the ship." The crewman's work contract had expired, and "there was evidence he may not have any interest in returning to the vessel" if let go, the INS spokesman said.
The ACLU's new complaints of threats to civil liberties following the outbreak of war in the Mideast put the heaviest blame on the FBI, accusing it of "the most serious violation" of the rights of Americans of Arabic ancestry.
An FBI spokesman, Mike Kortan, said the FBI's interviews with leaders of the Arab-American community in this country "in no way were attempts to solicit their political views, or their views on other topics not related to our counter-terrorism" activities, or to the FBI's duty to protect the Arab-Americans' civil rights. There has been "no surveillance" of any Arab-Americans, he added.