By William Fisher
Four Muslim men who were detained without charge for months in the weeks after September 11, 2001, eventually cleared of any connection to terrorism, but then deported to Egypt, have been allowed to return to the U.S. to pursue their class action civil lawsuit against the U.S. government for unlawful imprisonment and abuse on behalf of 1,200 other Muslim and South Asian men rounded up and jailed following the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Yasser Ebrahim, the first of the men allowed to return from Egypt under strict conditions, gave his deposition in New York on Monday.
The men, who charge they suffered inhumane and degrading treatment in a Brooklyn detention center, are being allowed to participate in the case under strict conditions, including confinement to their hotel rooms and a ban on their speaking to anybody outside the case for the duration of their stay.
The three other plaintiffs are expected to arrive in the U.S. over the next two weeks. Four other deportees are parties to the suit but are not expected to return to the U.S. for depositions
The plaintiffs charge that they were placed in solitary confinement, and suffered severe beatings, incessant verbal abuse and a total blackout on communications with their families and attorneys.
The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), a civil rights advocacy group handling the case, said the conditions for their return to the U.S. are highly unusual in a civil case and a sign of what he called government "paranoia over Muslim and Middle Eastern men."
The case names former Attorney General John Ashcroft, FBI Director Robert Mueller, immigration officials and prison officers among defendants. The suit, originally filed in 2002, seeks compensation and punitive damages.
CCR legal director Bill Goodman told me, “Shortly after 9/11, the Department of Justice detained approximately 2,000 Muslim men, primarily from the Middle East and South Asia. Not one of these men was ever found to have been guilty of any form of terrorism, or even linked to terrorism. These men were held for many months longer than necessary, in solitary confinement, often physically abused and under degrading conditions. The government fought tooth and nail against any judicial oversight of what was going on. This was the beginning of what has been shown to be the U.S. policy of indefinite detention without due process, often involving torture. This lawsuit seeks to challenge and to rectify the illegal actions of the government.”
The plaintiffs’ claims will be bolstered by a 2003 report by Justice Department's Office of the Inspector General (IG), who found that some prison officers slammed detainees against the wall, twisted their arms and hands in painful ways, stepped on their leg restraint chains and punished them by keeping them restrained for long periods of time.
The IG’s report also cited videotapes he said showed that some detention center staff "misused strip searches and restraints to punish detainees and that officers improperly and illegally recorded detainees' meetings with their attorneys."
The Federal Bureau of Prisons said it had fired two people, demoted two more and six had been suspended for periods from two days to 30 days.
"It means a lot to our clients that finally someone is being held accountable for the brutality they experienced," said CCR attorney Matthew Strugar.
"But we believe the responsibility for these abuses goes further up the chain of command at the Bureau of Prisons and we are disappointed more individuals have not yet been held accountable."
A spokesman for the Department of Justice declined to comment on the case.
The New York Times, which interviewed Yasser Ebrahim and his brother Hany in Egypt last week, reported that the two had lived in New York for several years before Sept. 11. Yasser ran a Web site design business and Hany worked in a delicatessen.
The two were arrested on Sept. 30, 2001 and held for around eight months, even after an FBI memo from Dec. 7 stated they were cleared of links to terrorist groups, the lawsuit claims.
"I'm seeking justice," Yasser Ebrahim reportedly told The New York Times. "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."
The case is likely to draw more media attention than most civil lawsuits because it comes at a time when the Bush administration is being accused of ignoring constitutional rights and laws passed by congress by carrying out secret interceptions of international telephone calls and emails by the National Security Agency, part of the Defense Department.
Last week, the CCR and the American Civil Liberties Union filed lawsuits asserting that President George W. Bush's authorization of the wiretaps of U.S. citizens without court warrants was illegal. They say it violates the provisions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), passed by congress in 1978. The FISA law established a permanent court that alone has the authority to issue warrants for surveillance of U.S. persons. The law defines U.S. persons as those in the U.S., whether citizens or not.
The Bush Administration contends it has “inherent” constitutional authority to protect the people in time of war, as well as implicit authority in the resolution passed by congress that authorized the president to take military action to win the “Global War on Terror”.
The Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to convene a hearing on the wiretap issue early next month, when Attorney General Alberto Gonzales will testify.
Before he became Attorney General, Gonzales served as White House Counsel and played a significant role in crafting post 9/11 administration detention policies and practices. So did the current head of our Homeland Security department, who was a senior official in the Ashcroft Justice Department before he was promoted to a lifetime appointment as a federal judge.
Little has been done to fix the grossly dysfunctional and highly secretive immigration prison system that is now part of our Homeland Security apparatus. It was dysfunctional before 9/11 and it remains dysfunctional today.
So it seems fitting that the lawsuit brought by the deportees should be heard at this particular point in history. It will be yet another test of whether our justice system can work in an environment of war, fear, and executive power.