Case Tests the Rights of Immigrants Held in US Jails Washington State Dispute May Reshape Laws Governing Detainment And

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Five men without countries are fighting for their freedom from behind US bars.

And how five federal judges decide their futures next month will help shape policy and laws governing the imprisonment of more than 3,500 detainees held indefinitely by the Immigration and Naturalization Service nationwide.

Under a tough law approved by Congress in 1996, criminal aliens are subject to automatic deportation and must be held without bond until their removal. The law imposes an indefinite sentence on those whose countries won't take them back. Indefinite detainees have won individual appeals for freedom in California, Texas, and Louisiana. But the Washington case represents the first time a group of them have been put together to argue the constitutional rights of a large group of "lifers" or "unremovables," as these detainees are called. Lifers are immigrants and refugees who are ordered deported, but whose home countries refuse to take them. Among those nations that balk are Cuba, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Somalia, and the former Soviet Union. Dennis Batyuchenko, a Soviet Christian refugee, is one of the five lifers involved in the Seattle suit. So far, Mr. Batyuchenko has been held two years by the INS - long enough to see indefinite incarceration take a toll on many detainees and their families. "I've seen many people losing their identities, becoming men without countries," he says. "They are the people nobody wants." Lifers generally are ordered deported after serving time for a criminal offense, though some have only immigration violations or misdemeanor convictions. The law affects those with recent convictions, as well as legal residents who may have served time years, even decades ago. Constitutional rights The five men named in the Seattle suit were chosen to represent about 150 lifers held in Washington. Their federal public defenders argue that indefinite detention violates the detainees' constitutional rights to due process. In California, federal public defenders already have helped three indefinite detainees win their freedom. Under court pressure, the California INS began a more rigorous administrative-review process, and subsequently released other lifers. The five federal district court judges will convene in Seattle for a joint hearing on the cases June 17 and are expected to issue separate decisions early this summer. The unusual process was hammered out in a series of discussions between Seattle judges, the federal public defender, and the US attorney, representing the INS. All five men in the Washington case came to America to find freedom, lived legally in the Northwest for years, and were ordered deported after serving time for crimes ranging from theft to man- slaughter. Here are their stories: *At age 13, Bin Phanh left behind his family and smuggled himself aboard a boat bound for Indonesia - a desperate teen whose fellow passengers nearly threw him overboard when they discovered his hiding place. …