Held in 9/11 Net, Muslims Return to Accuse U.S.
Held in 9/11 Net, Muslims Return to Accuse U.S.
By NINA BERNSTEIN
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
"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
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."