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Justice Department Releasing Pakistanis Held Since Sept. 11

By Steve Fainaru and Amy Goldstein

The Justice Department is removing hundreds of Pakistani detainees from the United States at a “hectic” pace and U.S. officials have told the Pakistani government that most of those arrested immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks will be returned home by the end of next month, a Pakistani official said Thursday.

The official, Imran Ali, the Pakistani consular officer who oversees the detainee issue, said about 130 captives have been deported, released on bond or have agreed to return to Pakistan voluntarily in recent weeks. He said all but about a dozen of the remaining “140 or 150” Pakistani detainees are to be freed now that U.S. authorities have concluded that “absolutely none had links to 9-11.”

The steady departure of the Pakistanis appears to be the largest known release of detainees since the government launched its terror investigation after the attacks on New York and Washington. But it is impossible to be certain, because the government has detained and moved the captives in total secrecy.

At least one other embassy, Turkey, said Thursday that its cadre of detainees had dropped significantly in the past month, and immigration lawyers said they had also heard that detainees were being released at a faster pace.

The law enforcement dragnet has come under repeated criticism from civil libertarians, immigration advocates and Muslim groups because of the length of some of the detentions, the secrecy surrounding the more than 1,200 people who have been jailed the past six months and the fact that the vast majority have been held on charges unrelated to terrorism. Last month, the Justice Department said that the number of detainees in custody for alleged immigration violations had been reduced to 327. Another group of more than 100 foreign nationals faces criminal charges unrelated to the terror probe.

The release of the Pakistanis follows the February visit to Washington of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, who urged President Bush to expedite cleared detainees’ departures.

Justice Department officials said Thursday night that they were not aware of any special arrangements to speed the release of Pakistanis, and said they do not keep track of deportations by nationality.