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U.S. Claims Returned Haitians Are in No Immediate Danger

By Art Pine
Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON

The Bush administration insisted Monday there is no evidence that Haitian refugees being forcibly returned to their country are suffering retribution from the military there, despite reports by United Nations staffers suggesting that they may be.

In separate statements, White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater and Department of State spokesman Richard Boucher said the United States has investigated such claims and has found no evidence to verify them.

"The State Department has checked all those out and we have not been able to substantiate any of them," Fitzwater said of the reports by U.N. representatives. "We have no evidence that there is that kind of brutality."

Also on Monday, attorneys for the Haitian Refugee Center in Miami asked the U.S. Supreme Court to stop the Bush administration from forcibly repatriating several thousand Haitian boat people who are being kept at the U.S. Naval Base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and to review the entire case.

At the same time, the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights wrote a letter to U.S. Attorney General William P. Barr, asking him to suspend the repatriation immediately until the U.N. reports "can be fully investigated" and Washington can make assurances that the Haitians "can return in safety and dignity."

The issue of whether the repatriated Haitians are encountering retaliation is important because under U.S. immigration law the Bush administration must accept the Haitians if there is evidence they left to escape political persecution, but it can turn them away if they left for economic reasons.

The administration contends that only a few Haitians out of the more than 15,000 boat people who have fled the strife-torn Caribbean nation since a military coup last Sept. 30 have merited political asylum, and it has sought to return the rest to Haiti.

But groups representing the refugees argue that virtually all of the boat people can legitimately claim fear of political persecution. They charged this past weekend that at least 42 refugees had left Haiti for a second time.

The Lawyer's Committee made public Monday copies of interviews that representatives of the United Nations High Commission on Refugees conducted with repatriated Haitians who said they had been pursued by soldiers, and that their compatriots had been shot.

In one case, a repatriated refugee said soldiers arrested his cousin, who had returned on the same Coast Guard cutter, and then came to the refugee's house looking for him. Later that day, he said his cousin's body was found dressed in army clothing and riddled with bullets.

Although a commission spokesman conceded Monday that his panel had no way to check the detailed reports, which were made following on-site inspections, a U.N. official said the accounts nevertheless seemed disturbing enough "to warrant a review of policy toward the Haitians."

Spokesmen for the Haitians said they were disappointed by the Bush administration's refusal to stop the repatriations. Arthur C. Helton, director of the panel's refugee project, called the Department of State's response "quite cursory and dismissive" and "just wrong."