U.S. government resumes legal fight over Haitians High court asked to allow returns

February 15, 1992|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration urged the Supreme Court yesterday to bring to a swift end the three-month legal fight in U.S. courts over the forced return to Haiti of thousands of "boat people" fleeing that Caribbean nation.

In two legal documents, government lawyers criticized a federal judge in Miami for repeatedly stopping the U.S. program of returning the Haitians to their homeland after intercepting them at sea.

The attorneys stopped just short of blaming Judge C. Clyde Atkins personally for the drowning of more than 100 Haitians who, they suggested, left Haiti in unsafe boats after the judge temporarily stopped the forced return of "boat people."

Two weeks ago, the Supreme Court, dividing 6-3, allowed the government to resume the forced repatriation of Haitians who it considered to have no claim for political asylum.

Yesterday, the government complained bitterly about the latest legal challenge and told the court: "Enough is enough. . . . Further judicial interference will only make matters worse."

It asked the court to throw out the Haitians' new appeal "immediately," to bring the legal fight to "a definitive close." Ordinarily, the court would not act on the Haitians' appeal for several weeks.

Out of approximately 15,000 Haitians picked up, about 4,500 have been found by U.S. authorities to have a legal right to political asylum.

Since the Supreme Court's earlier order, the administration said yesterday, it has sent home more than 3,000 Haitians "without incident," and with no "substantiated reports" that they were harmed for having left their country.

But lawyers for the Haitians have asked the court to step in now and stop the return program -- at least for as long as it takes the justices to review a new appeal that contends the Haitians' legal rights are being violated by the return policy.

Some Haitians being held temporarily at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, have said that they fear they will be punished -- and possibly killed -- if they are forced to go back to live under the military junta.

Others who have fled Haiti more than once have told stories about persecution of those who have been sent back.

But the administration discounted those fears and claims in the new filings. It said it has found "no basis to conclude that the Haitian government is targeting repatriated Haitians for persecution because of their departure from the country."

It said that U.S. officials in Haiti have set up a monitoring program to watch for possible retaliation against those who are sent back.

As many as 10,000 Haitian boat people have been held at Guantanamo Bay since Judge Atkins first blocked their repatriation. The government said yesterday that it has spent $19 million to "maintain" the Haitians there.

The government said the number of fleeing Haitians intercepted by the Coast Guard has dropped sharply -- to only 365 in a recent 10-day period, compared to 5,928 in the final 10 days of January. But, the administration told the court, it will take "a number of weeks" to complete the return program for those at the Cuba base.

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