WASHINGTON -- A federal judge in New York denounced the Clinton and Bush administrations yesterday for running a "prison camp" at a U.S. Navy base in Cuba for Haitian refugees infected with the AIDS virus and ordered the refugees freed immediately.
U.S. District Judge Sterling Johnson Jr. of Brooklyn said "the Haitian camp at Guantanamo is the only known refugee camp in the world composed entirely of HIV-positive refugees." Keeping the 158 refugees there any longer "is totally unacceptable," he ruled.
He did not order the government to bring the refugees to this country, saying only that they could not be detained any longer and must be free to go "anywhere but Haiti." Their lawyers said the "practical effect" of the ruling would be that all would go to U.S. cities to join families or to stay in centers set up for them.
The Clinton administration, which has continued the detention policy started under President George Bush, said the Justice Department was studying its options and had made no immediate decision what to do.
The ruling, together with the resignation yesterday of the Haitian junta's designated prime minister, Marc Bazin, triggered speculation about a new wave of Haitians seeking to leave their country.
But the U.S. government still has a policy of picking up all refugees bound for the United States as soon as they flee by sea and putting them back on shore in Haiti. The Supreme Court is expected to rule shortly on the legality of that policy.
Lawyers for the refugees being held at the Guantanamo base expressed doubt yesterday that, whatever the court rules on that issue, the decision by Judge Johnson to free those refugees would be affected. But the government has the option of seeking to have the judge's release order blocked, at least temporarily, during an appeal.
The 53-page opinion was filled with criticism of the U.S. government for holding the Haitians at an "HIV prison camp." He wrote: "The detainees are imprisoned in squalid, prison-like camps surrounded by razor barbed wire. They are not free to wander about the base. Guarded by the military day and night, [they] are subject to surprise pre-dawn military sweeps conducted by soldiers outfitted in full riot gear searching for missing detainees."
Although none of the refugees has been ruled eligible to live in the United States, all have passed at least a preliminary screening for political asylum because of their fear of returning to their homeland.
The sick refugees and their close relatives being held at the Guantanamo base "are merely the unfortunate victims of a fatal disease," the judge said. He added that the government had failed to show that the refugees' illness "warrants the kind of indefinite detention usually reserved for spies and murderers."
The refugees already have been held more than 18 months at a special segregated camp at the Navy base, and Judge Johnson XTC said they had been told they could stay there "for 10 to 20 years or possibly until a cure for AIDS is found."
The judge's ruling also:
* Struck down the entire policy under which HIV-infected refugees have been kept in custody.
* Ruled that the U.S. government had acted unconstitutionally in failing to provide the sick refugees adequate medical care.
* Struck down the system set up to discipline or punish refugees accused of misconduct.
* Ruled that the government acted unconstitutionally in denying the refugees' lawyers a chance to be with them and advise them when their asylum review was going on.