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News Briefs

INS Drops Plea to Detain Egyptian


Immigration officials unexpectedly withdrew their request Monday that Attorney General Janet Reno overturn a judge’s order to release an Egyptian accused by the FBI of being a terrorist.

The Immigration and Naturalization Service’s abrupt about-face meant that Nasser K. Ahmed, 39, was released Monday night after 3 1/2 years in a New York jail. His case is not yet settled, however. Early next year, an immigration appeals board is slated to review both Ahmed’s application for political asylum and a request by the Immigration and Naturalization Service that he be deported.

Ahmed was incarcerated in 1996 based on classified FBI evidence linking him to Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, the blind Muslim cleric convicted of conspiring to blow up the United Nations. It was Rahman’s conviction that FBI officials believe inspired the 1997 U.S. Embassy bombings in East Africa.

Monday’s development concerns a narrow but important facet of a complicated deportation and political asylum case that has attracted international attention. Opponents of the use of secret evidence, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Arab American community, have described it as an example of FBI misconduct and unconstitutional detention.

Two weeks ago, after the Board of Immigration Appeals upheld a judge’s order to release Ahmed on bond, the INS asked Reno to overturn the decision. Had Reno done so, Ahmed would have remained in jail pending the board’s determination of the merits of his asylum and deportation case. But Monday, as Reno’s deadline for a decision approached, the INS withdrew its request.

Testing Ban on Mentally Ill Is Lifted


Los Angeles County’s mental health department has quietly lifted its four-year ban on the testing of psychotropic drugs on severely disabled people in its care.

At the same time, officials are drawing up procedures to screen anticipated proposals for research on the drugs, which are used to treat mental disorders.

The more-than 2,000 patients affected are mostly impoverished people afflicted with severe schizophrenia whom a court has ruled unable to care for themselves and placed under the county’s control as “conservatees.” Scattered in nursing homes, board-and-care facilities and convalescent or state hospitals, conservatees can be forced to take certain drugs and lose their right to vote.

While the mental health department believes it has the power to lift the ban on its own, it has asked the county’s lawyers for an opinion on whether the Board of Supervisors is required to set the guidelines for permissible drug trials. That opinion is forthcoming.

County officials acknowledge that permitting medical tests on conservatees is highly controversial, especially given the heightened national debate over testing. They say their policy will be extremely restrictive, most likely allowing only small-scale research that would not be done against conservatees’ will.

But the county’s move has sparked an outcry among some mental health professionals and activists who point out that state law bans such tests on children or prisoners because they cannot give truly independent, informed consent to procedures that can carry grave medical risks.