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Held in 9/11 Net, Muslims Return to Accuse U.S.

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  • Greg Cannon
    http://www.nytimes.com/2006/01/23/nyregion/23detain.html?ex=1295672400&en=2fee68c285899db9&ei=5090&partner=rssuserland&emc=rss Held in 9/11 Net, Muslims Return
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 23, 2006

      Held in 9/11 Net, Muslims Return to Accuse U.S.

      Published: January 23, 2006

      Hundreds of noncitizens were swept up on visa
      violations in the weeks after 9/11, held for months in
      a much-criticized federal detention center in Brooklyn
      as "persons of interest" to terror investigators, and
      then deported. This week, one of them is back in New
      York and another is due today - the first to return to
      the United States.

      They are no longer the accused but the accusers, among
      six former detainees who are coming back to give
      depositions in their federal lawsuits against top
      government officials and detention guards, at a time
      when the constitutionality of part of the government's
      counterterrorism offensive is under new scrutiny.

      As in the cases of all the Muslim immigrants rounded
      up in the New York area after the terror attacks, the
      six were never accused of a crime related to 9/11;
      officials eventually cleared all of them of links to
      terrorism. A report by the inspector general of the
      Justice Department found systemic problems with
      immigrant detentions and widespread abuse at the
      federal detention center where the six had been held;
      several guards have since been disciplined.

      But as the six return to the city - four of them from
      Egypt, one from Pakistan, one from London - the
      conditions imposed by the United States government
      include the requirement that they be in the constant
      custody of federal marshals.

      They are barred from calling anyone during their
      weeklong stays at an undisclosed New York hotel, where
      12 days of closed depositions are to begin today. They
      can expect hours of questioning by lawyers
      representing at least 31 defendants in the lawsuits,
      including John Ashcroft, the former attorney general,
      and Robert S. Mueller III, the director of the F.B.I.

      The first returning detainees, Yasser and Hany
      Ibrahim, who are brothers, say that putting themselves
      back in the hands of the government they are suing is
      an act of faith in America. In recent telephone
      interviews from Alexandria, Egypt, the two described
      themselves as frightened but resolute in pressing a
      2002 class-action lawsuit charging that they were
      abused and deprived of due process because of their
      religion or national origin.

      "I'm seeking justice," said Yasser, 33, who had a Web
      site design business in Brooklyn before he and Hany,
      29, a deli worker, were delivered in shackles to the
      Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn 19 days
      after 9/11. "It's from the same system that did us
      injustice before. But I have faith in this system. I
      know what happened before was a mistake."

      Charles S. Miller, a spokesman for the Justice
      Department, said officials would not comment on any
      aspect of the case, including the conditions of the
      men's return to the city and their allegations. But in
      court papers, the defendants deny wrongdoing, and
      department lawyers argue in part that the Sept. 11
      attacks created "special factors" - including the need
      to detect and deter future terrorist attacks - that
      outweigh the plaintiffs' right to sue for damages for
      any constitutional violations.

      The detainees' lawyers say that what happened at the
      Brooklyn detention center can be recognized four years
      later as the template for many of the counterterrorism
      measures now being fiercely challenged.

      "The post-9/11 domestic immigration sweeps were the
      first example of the Bush administration's willingness
      to ignore the law and hold people outside the judicial
      system," said Rachel Meeropol, a lawyer for the Center
      for Constitutional Rights, which represents the
      Ibrahim brothers. "The kind of torture, interrogation
      and arbitrary detention that we now associate with
      Guantánamo and secret C.I.A. facilities really started
      right here, in Brooklyn."

      Richard Peter Caro, a lawyer for Stuart Pray, the
      lieutenant who oversaw the detainees' arrival at the
      detention center, said yesterday: "We're glad that
      they're coming in to be deposed so we can really get
      at the facts and finally see what the evidence shows.
      I'm confident that my client will be found to have
      committed no wrongdoing at all."

      Last week, the center filed a class-action suit
      against President Bush and other administration
      officials over the National Security Agency's domestic
      eavesdropping without warrants. Ms. Meeropol is one of
      the plaintiffs, contending that her communications
      with clients like the Ibrahims may have been monitored
      illegally. The government says the surveillance
      program is a legal and valuable tool in the war on

      Illegal recording of lawyer-client conversations was
      one of the abuses documented at the Brooklyn detention
      center in a scathing 2003 report by the Justice
      Department's inspector general. The report also found
      a pattern of physical abuse, some of it caught on
      prison videotape, including beatings and sexual
      humiliations like those described by the Ibrahim
      brothers or other former detainees. The report said it
      was Mr. Ashcroft's policy to hold detainees on any
      legal pretext until the F.B.I. cleared them, even
      though such clearances took months and many detainees
      were immigrants picked up by chance.

      At the time, Mr. Ashcroft said he made "no apologies"
      for finding every legal way possible to protect the
      American public. Nonetheless, officials pledged to
      work on getting kinks out of the system, and said
      abuses would be punished.

      Critics charge that the authority that Mr. Ashcroft
      asserted after 9/11 - to detain any noncitizen
      considered a "person of interest" secretly and
      indefinitely - is unconstitutional. Government
      officials argue that secrecy is needed to keep
      terrorists in the dark.

      Mr. Ashcroft has sought to have the two lawsuits
      brought by the detainees dismissed. But in a decision
      appealed by the government, a federal judge in
      Brooklyn ruled in September that he and other
      defendants would have to answer questions, at a later
      deposition, in one of the suits: a 2004 complaint by
      another two of the six returning detainees.

      Those two men, in their late 30's, are Ehab
      Elmaghraby, an Egyptian immigrant who ran a restaurant
      near Times Square, and Javaid Iqbal, a Pakistani
      immigrant whose Long Island customers knew him as "the
      cable guy."

      "I am not afraid," Mr. Iqbal wrote last week in an
      e-mail message about his return. "I am also sure that
      justice will be served because peoples of U.S.A. are
      justice-loving people regardless of race and

      The Ibrahim brothers are more fearful. They say that
      their parents begged them not to return to the country
      where they were held in maximum security without
      charges for eight months and, the brothers charge,
      beaten and tormented by guards. "Part of my motivation
      is to make sure that what happened to us doesn't
      happen to more people in the future," said Yasser, who
      was due to arrive in New York today, joining his
      brother, who came on Friday.

      Both spoke with nostalgia of the three or four years
      they lived in New York, on and off, before 9/11. When
      they were not working, they said, they hung out
      together in Greenwich Village, browsed electronics
      stores near Times Square and took friends on the rides
      at Coney Island. Hany proudly recalled how he worked
      his way up from stock boy to grill man and then
      manager of a deli in Ocean Parkway, Brooklyn. "The
      best I lived in my life was in New York," he said.

      Right after the World Trade Center attack, they said,
      their parents urged them to come home. "We assured
      them," Yasser recalled: " 'This is the United States.
      They don't arrest people for no charges. We didn't do
      anything, so nothing's going to happen to us.' "

      But at 2 p.m. on Sept. 30, 2001, the lawsuit says, a
      dozen terrorism investigators from the F.B.I., the
      police and immigration services knocked at the door of
      the Ocean Parkway apartment that the brothers shared
      with several Egyptian and Moroccan friends. After
      questioning, the investigators took away Yasser, Hany
      and another man, all of whose tourist visas had

      Why investigators showed up is unclear, said their
      lawyer, Ms. Meeropol. But she noted that some
      interrogations were prompted by anonymous tips about
      "suspicious-looking" foreign men. Federal officials
      have contended that at a time when a second terror
      attack seemed imminent, all tips had to be checked. As
      a practical matter, once the brothers were labeled "of
      interest" to investigators, they were destined for the
      maximum-security unit of the Metropolitan Detention

      Physical abuse, the lawsuit says, began the moment
      they arrived, chained and shackled. As Yasser
      described it, guards supervised by Lieutenant Pray
      slammed his brother face-first into a wall where an
      American flag T-shirt had been taped, then did the
      same to him.

      Pain became part of the brothers' daily routine, the
      lawsuit charges. Escort teams cursing them as Muslims
      and terrorists slammed them into every available wall
      when they were taken from their cells, twisted their
      wrists and fingers, and stepped on their leg chains so
      that they fell, their ankles bruised and bloody,
      according to the suit.

      But worse than physical or verbal abuse, Yasser said,
      was "the feeling that we are being hidden from the
      outside world, and nobody knows in the outside world
      that we are arrested and in this place." Hany, who
      says he had a nervous breakdown when he returned to
      Egypt, recalled that guards and lieutenants terrified
      him by saying, "You're going to stay here the rest of
      your life."

      At a closed immigration hearing on Nov. 20, three
      weeks after their arrest, the brothers agreed to
      immediate deportation. By Dec. 7, the lawsuit says,
      F.B.I. memos stated that clearance checks on the
      Ibrahims had shown no links to terrorism. But they
      were held six more months - Hany until May 29, 2002,
      and Yasser until June 6.

      The suit asks the court to declare that all the
      detentions were unjustified and illegal, to award
      compensatory and punitive damages, and to order the
      government to return personal property it confiscated.

      To prevent unnecessary detentions and abuses of
      noncitizens in the event of a new national emergency,
      the Justice Department's inspector general, Glenn A.
      Fine, in 2003 recommended changes in counterterrorism
      policy as well as disciplinary action against at least
      10 guards and supervisors. In his last report to
      Congress, in August 2005, Mr. Fine said that many of
      his recommendations had been acted upon but that
      formal policy changes were still being negotiated.

      The Federal Bureau of Prisons has fired two detention
      officers, suspended two for 30 days and demoted one in
      connection with the Brooklyn inquiry, said Traci
      Billingsley, a bureau spokeswoman.

      The Ibrahim brothers say that when they finally
      reached home, they found that the presumption of guilt
      had followed them into an Egyptian secret service
      dossier that made them unemployable. Yasser, now
      married with a 2-year-old son, said he and Hany were
      eking out a living in a small jewelry business.

      "It's going to be very difficult for me to go back for
      just a week and not to be able to see the places that
      I loved before," he said of his return. "America's the
      land of the free."
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