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U.S. can send Haitians back without hearing

The United States can intercept fleeing Haitians at sea and return them to Haiti without asylum hearings.

The Supreme Court, in an 8-1 decision, ruled Monday that the Bush and Clinton administrations' policy was permitted under federal immigration law and an international treaty to which the United States is a party.

A federal appeals court in New York ruled last year that the policy violated both the law and the treaty. But because the justices granted a stay, the lower court's decision never took effect.

During the presidential campaign last year, Bill Clinton denounced the interdictions as cruel and illegal. But as president he kept the policy while trying unsuccessfully to negotiate the return of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haiti's democratically elected president. His overthrow in a military coup in 1991 led to the refugee crisis.

The Clinton administration defended the policy March before the Supreme Court, saying it was necessary to avert a tragedy at sea. Without it, even more Haitians would set sail in unseaworthy boats in the expectation of gaining entry to the United States, the administration argued.

In the three weeks before Bush put the policy in place, the Coast Guard picked up 10,497 Haitians heading for the United States in 127 boats. Under the previous practice, the Haitians were interviewed aboard ship and would not be returned if they had a potentially valid claim to refugee status. Once the interviews stopped and repatriation became automatic, the human flood dropped to a trickle.

While the case before the court touched on profound humanitarian concerns, the legal questions were narrow ones. The principal question was whether aliens on the high seas are entitled to the protection accorded to refugees under either the Immigration and Nationality Act or the U.N. Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. The court said the answer in both instances was no.

The eight-member majority appeared to take pains not to pass judgment on the wisdom of the policy. Justice John Paul Stevens, writing for the majority, even wrote that the reason neither federal law nor the U.N. treaty applied beyond U.S. borders was that the drafters "may not have contemplated that any nation would gather fleeing refugees and return them to the one country they had desperately sought to escape."

In his dissenting opinion, Justice Harry Blackmun took issue with nearly every element of the majority's legal analysis. "A refugee may not be returned to his persecutors" under the applicable law, he said. He added that to read into the law "a territorial restriction is to restore the very language that Congress removed."

The heart of the legal argument put forward on the Haitians' behalf by a group of civil rights lawyers was that the U.N. treaty did apply to refugees on the high seas and that Congress had changed domestic immigration law accordingly after the United States agreed to the treaty in 1968.

Military chief agrees to meet with Aristide: Little more than a day before the imposition of a worldwide oil embargo against Haiti, the country's military chief offered Monday to meet with ousted President Aristide.

Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras, who had rejected such U.N.-mediated talks to restore democracy several weeks ago, also appealed to the world body to halt the embargo, scheduled to start at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday.

Cedras, in a communique to U.N. envoy Dante Caputo, asked that the talks take place in a neutral country. The letter to Caputo, sent following a lengthy meeting of the army high command, was broadcast on state radio.

At the United Nations, Caputo confirmed receiving the letter, but said he needed more time to analyze its contents and would make no comment Monday.

_ Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.