Government's report bolsters detainees' claims of mistreatment

Monday, June 23, 2003

NEW YORK -- Yasser Ebrahim says his introduction to the federal prison system came from guards slamming his head into a wall while calling him a "terrorist."

Shakir Baloch says guards at the same lockup warned him: "You will be here the rest of your life."

Those allegations and others -- including random beatings -- made by Muslim men held on immigration charges after the Sept. 11 attacks had been routinely dismissed by federal officials.

Earlier this month, however, the Justice Department's Office of the Inspector General issued a report saying it found "significant problems" with the treatment of nearly 800 detainees nationwide, including abusive conditions at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn where Ebrahim and Baloch were held.

The report cast a critical light on the little-known federal lockup on the waterfront, and breathed life into a pending civil rights lawsuit filed by Ebrahim, Baloch and five others against Attorney General John Ashcroft, prison personnel, FBI supervisors and other officials. The plaintiffs are seeking class action status.

"What we said about all the suffering was true," Ebrahim, 31, said in a phone interview from his native Egypt. "The government was doing its best to deny it."

Both Ebrahim and Baloch were held for eight months without being charged with a crime, then were deported.

"I'm owed an apology," said Baloch, 41, a Pakistani-born doctor with Canadian citizenship.

Their lawyers have amended the lawsuit, filed last year, to incorporate the inspector general's findings. The suit, which seeks unspecified damages, claims federal officials violated their rights by imprisoning them on the basis of their race and religion.

More than 80 men designated "of high interest" in the FBI investigation of the Sept. 11 attacks were jailed at the facility in Brooklyn between Sept. 14, 2001, and Aug. 27, 2002. The nine-story facility usually houses men and women charged with federal crimes, not immigration violations.

High-security cell blocks

Inmates like Ebrahim and Baloch were classified "suspected terrorists" and put in high-security cell blocks normally reserved for dangerous inmates.

The men say they were denied access to phones and lawyers for weeks at a time, locked in tiny cells where lights burned all night, kept awake by guards pounding on their doors, put in handcuffs and shackles whenever outside their cells and beaten at random.

"I was being hated by everyone around me wanting revenge for Sept. 11," Ebrahim said. He acknowledged staying past his visa's expiration but said he did nothing else illegal.

The abuse allegedly subsided once guards were ordered to videotape detainees outside their cells -- a policy that prison officials said was designed simply to deter accusations of mistreatment.

The officials cited an al-Qaida training manual that instructed terrorists to accuse their captors of abuse.

Ebrahim says one guard whispered: "The camera is your best friend. If not for the camera, I would have smashed your face."

In interviews with the Inspector General's investigators, most guards denied any wrongdoing. But one said he witnessed guards slam inmates against walls, and "stated this was a common practice before the MDC began videotaping the detainees," the report said.

The guard said a supervisor told him "it was all part of being in jail and not to worry about it."

Justice Department officials refuse to discuss the civil suit.

Government attorneys have asked a judge to dismiss the case, arguing Ashcroft and other defendants are shielded by immunity laws designed to ensure they can perform their official duties "without the chill and distraction of damages suits."

Ebrahim says the distraction of the lawsuit is nothing compared to hearing a knock on his door on Sept. 30, 2001, and being hauled away for reasons he says are still unclear to him.

"This is not supposed to happen in America," he said.

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