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Pete Rose finally confessed to betting on baseball this week. But the U.S. Department of Justice refused to come clean about what it did to Florida resident Mohamed Kamel Bellahouel. On Monday, at the direction of the U.S. Supreme Court, Solicitor General Theodore B. Olson responded to the Algerian native’s appeal. Bellahouel has asked the high court to review whether the government or the lower courts acted improperly by secretly imprisoning him for five months without criminal charges and keeping his habeas corpus case completely sealed and off the public court dockets. But Olson’s response — like everything else the government and the federal courts have done in the case since it started two years ago in U.S. District Court in Miami — was filed under seal. “This matter pertains to information that is required to be kept under seal,” Olson wrote in a one-paragraph statement filed with the government’s sealed response. That new layer of government secrecy was applied just as Bellahouel’s case, first disclosed by the Miami Daily Business Review last March, prompted a legal response from a broad range of national media and legal groups. On Friday, a coalition of 23 organizations, including The New York Times and the Daily Business Review‘s parent company, American Lawyer Media, filed papers with the high court seeking to intervene as parties in the case in order to gain access to all unclassified information. “A free and open society cannot tolerate hiding federal court proceedings from public view,” said Lucy A. Dalglish, executive director of the Arlington, Va.-based Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. “By participating in this case, the media aim to ensure that the proper balance is drawn between secrecy in the name of national security and the public’s right to know.” The Reporters Committee assembled the coalition, which is represented by Thomas C. Goldstein of Washington, D.C.’s Goldstein & Howe. Coalition members include The Washington Post, Gannett Co., Knight Ridder, the Hearst Corp., ABC, CNN, the Society of Professional Journalists and the American Immigration Lawyers Association. Bellahouel was one of about 1,200 Arab men who were detained in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The Deerfield Beach, Fla., resident came to the attention of FBI agents, who found that two Sept. 11 hijackers, Mohammed Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi, were customers at a Delray Beach, Fla., restaurant where Bellahouel worked. Bellahouel, who is married to a U.S.-born woman, was held at the Krome Detention Center in southern Miami-Dade County from October 2001 until March 2002. Authorities apparently concluded he was not a threat, and he was allowed to post a $10,000 bond during his appeal of the only charge against him — overstaying his student visa. That immigration case is pending. While Bellahouel was in custody, the Federal Public Defender’s Office in Miami filed a civil case on his behalf seeking a writ of habeas corpus. That case — which proceeded in total secrecy until last March, when the Daily Business Review first reported on it — has now reached the U.S. Supreme Court in largely secret form. The style of the case, 03-6747, is M.K.B. v. Warden. In Solicitor General Olson’s terse public reply to Bellahouel’s petition for review, he chose to maintain the heavy blanket of secrecy that has characterized the case since its inception. Olson’s approach differs from the one taken by Paul M. Rashkind, the appeals chief of the Federal Public Defender’s office in Miami. Over the summer, Rashkind filed a redacted appeals petition at the Supreme Court making some case information public while still complying with gag orders issued by U.S. District Judge Paul C. Huck of the Southern District of Florida and upheld by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Bellahouel’s petition attacked the lower court sealing orders, calling them “improper.” The petition noted “habeas corpus proceedings are historically, and by court rule, open to the public.” The petition said that the district court and the 11th Circuit decided on their own to seal the case, because neither the government nor Bellahouel requested it. “That decision was apparently made … without input from the parties and without the articulated judicial findings required by the court’s jurisprudence,” Rashkind wrote. Rashkind argued that courts aren’t supposed to close access to such cases unless a “compelling government interest” is at stake. And judges who deny access must explain themselves in an order. Rashkind argued that the failure to issue an order justifying the sealing was legally unsupportable. “The district court’s failure to give notice, hold a hearing, and to make articulated findings is an abuse of discretion and reversible error. The same is true of the court of appeals’ secrecy,” the petition says. The justices have not decided whether to accept the case. ‘SHOCKING’ DECISION Gregg Leslie, legal defense director for the Arlington, Va.-based Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, called the government’s decision to respond under seal “shocking” and unnecessary. “If for nothing but public relations reasons, I would have thought they’d have made the effort to come up with as much of a public document as they could have to show they would be as open as possible,” Leslie said. In early November, the Reporters Committee filed a friend-of-the-court brief that urged the Supreme Court to accept Bellahouel’s case for review in order to decide whether extreme secrecy — including a sealed docket — violated the First Amendment. Later, following consultations with First Amendment lawyers around the country, the group decided to take a stronger stance. It recruited other media and legal organizations to mount a rare attempt to intervene in the case. Such intervenor status would allow greater access to information about the case. The other coalition members are the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the Radio-Television News Directors Association, the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, Military Reporters and Editors Inc., the National Federation of Press Women, the National Newspaper Association, the National Press Club, the Newspaper Association of America, the Newspaper Guild-CWA, and the People for the American Way Foundation.

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