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High court lets Haitians be sent home _ for now

The Supreme Court refused to block the forced return of Haitian refugees to their homeland Tuesday but left open the possibility it could take such action later this week.

The court gave the Bush administration until Friday to respond to an emergency request filed Monday by lawyers for the refugees and aimed at halting all repatriations. The request said returning Haitians face political persecution, and alleged that U.S. officials know that some repatriated Haitians have been "tortured, killed or persecuted."

Only Justice Harry Blackmun voted on Tuesday to block the forced returns to Haiti pending the administration's response and further court action.

The court is not expected to rule further until receiving the response from Justice Department lawyers.

Arthur Helton, director of the Refugee Project of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, voiced dismay at the Supreme Court action, and said State Department investigations into reports of abuses of returned Haitians "have been cursory and dismissive."

Meanwhile, about 500 Haitians were due to be sent home today from the Guantanamo Bay naval base in Cuba, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said, with further repatriation scheduled for Thursday and Friday.

More than 15,000 Haitians have fled their country for the United States since a military coup last September toppled the elected government of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The State Department said Tuesday that 2,137 Haitians had been repatriated since the coup.

Navy man questioned in assault of Haitian: The Navy is investigating charges that a hospital corpsman sexually assaulted a Haitian woman at the Guantanamo Bay naval base. Bob Hall, a Navy spokesman at the Pentagon, said Tuesday the suspect had been questioned and removed from any duty dealing with the refugees.

Officials declined to identify him. They said he faced a criminal hearing Friday on rape and sodomy charges.

The rape occurred Jan. 30 and was reported to U.S. authorities two days later, Navy officials said.

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