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A policy of expediency

The Bush administration has insisted all along that Haitian refugees being forcibly shipped home face no danger of retribution. "There is not one single documented case of a repatriated Haitian being persecuted or targeted after their return," Secretary of State James Baker said last week.

Now it appears that the administration is being selective with its facts. Dozens of the 10,000 or so refugees being held at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base told U.N. interviewers last month that they had been imprisoned, beaten or tortured after the United States returned them to their homeland last fall. The so-called "doubleback" refugees told of fellow imprisoned returnees disappearing after being threatened with death. They told the same stories to U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) interviewers at Guantanamo. That the INS admitted 41 of the 42 "doublebacks" interviewed by the United Nations, despite having rejected them once, says that their stories are credible.

It's difficult to reconcile such information with the administration's blanket assurances that repatriates face no danger. The accounts strongly suggest _ even though they don't prove _ that forced repatriations are putting an untold number of refugees in jeopardy. How many more potential "doublebacks" never managed to escape a second time?

In insisting that it can't "document" such claims, the administration continues to hide behind the fact that Haiti is a closed, impoverished police state where documented information is tough to come by under the best of circumstances.

Exactly why the administration is being so disingenuous isn't clear. At least the attempt to put a fig leaf on the policy suggests that the administration believes Americans still have a conscience about sending innocent people off to die, even if they're poor and black and we're in budget trouble.

More disturbing is the possibility that the administration withheld evidence of persecution in "a studied attempt to mislead the federal judiciary" into lifting a moratorium on the repatriations, as one Haitian advocate charged. Lawyers for Haitians asked the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday to reinstate the moratorium. The court refused, but reserved the right to act after the administration responds to the charges Friday.

That leaves at least a glimmer of hope for the lost souls fleeing terror and starvation in the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. But the court should have erred on the side of decency and halted the repatriations while it makes up its mind. Each day that passes means hundreds more refugees are put at risk by this transparent, callous policy of expediency.

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