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RESPONSE TO TERROR | IMPRISONED ABROAD

Americans Held in Foreign Jails Feel for U.S. Detainees

Justice: Citizens in overseas prisons relate to the fear and isolation of immigrants held here.

December 02, 2001|RICHARD A. SERRANO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Alone in a jail in a foreign country, frightened and confused, unable to understand the language, culture or complicated court system, distrustful of their attorneys and kept from their family--so run the emotions of hundreds of immigrants detained in the U.S. dragnet since the Sept. 11 attacks.

So it also has gone for thousands of Americans.

People like Stephen Roye of Los Angeles, now seven years behind bars in Thailand, where he has lost his Jewish faith; Marcus Villagran, also of Southern California, who felt himself a political prisoner in India, where his anti-American guards beat him; and Lisa Gosselin of Chicago, who felt she shamed her family for her years in a Thailand jail.

Even Billy Hayes, the American held for drug possession in a Turkish prison whose experiences were dramatized in the movie "Midnight Express," empathizes with the Sept. 11 detainees in this country.

"I think about it from their side," said Hayes, now a Hollywood film director.

"I was guilty. But if you're innocent and being detained . . . it makes you all the more desperate. There's this righteousness you feel. And desperation. Are they going to kill me? Or leave me in jail for my whole life?"

Most of the Sept. 11 detainees are being held on immigration violations, or federal or state charges ranging from check forgery to illegal possession of firearms. Only a handful are believed to have some tie to terrorist activity, according to government documents.

Before Sept. 11, most suspects held on such charges would have been released on bail after a few days or weeks. But the U.S. government continues to hold hundreds, aided by the broad expansion of its legal powers since the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

It is believed that each year 1,500 to 2,000 U.S. citizens are taken into custody in foreign countries, though the State Department stopped reporting the number several years ago. New laws allowing prisoner exchanges have eased some of that problem, particularly for Americans arrested in Mexico.

But many countries, including some in the Middle East and Southeast Asia, continue to hold Americans for long periods of time. The psychological and emotional toll mirrors the experiences of the more than 600 foreigners now held in U.S. jails and prisons in connection with the government's investigation of the September terrorist attacks.

The stories of Americans held abroad can be hard to fathom--tales of torture and deprivation, of starvation and forced confessions. Americans often admit they are guilty and apologize when they eventually are freed.

U.S. courts operate on the premise of innocence until guilt is proved. Yet many of those arrested after Sept. 11 find their experience in the American justice system a nightmare.

There is the language barrier, the inability to understand legal nuances, the angst that one possibly is being tried as a political prisoner. Indeed, the vast majority of the Sept. 11 detainees are not terrorists, and yet many U.S. courts are holding closed hearings, and court papers often are sealed.

Some Sept. 11 detainees complain they are being prevented from practicing their Muslim religion in prison and worry that they might lose their faith, much like what Roye experienced in a Thailand prison since his arrest on drug possession charges.

"Steve was always devoted to Judaism in the secular way we all were in the family," said his aunt, Miriam Moorman of Westwood. "His grandparents were immigrants and spoke Yiddish."

But in prison, she said, he has abandoned his religion. "There is a Chabad rabbi who is very orthodox and does kind of have services with some of the few Jewish prisoners there. At the beginning, Steve kind of took part. But he gradually became bitter and doesn't participate anymore."

Many of the Sept. 11 prisoners do not understand the American court system and worry that they are being railroaded, much like what Villagran felt when he was taken to court in India on fraud charges.

"I was there only one day for my trial," he recalled. "I didn't know what the sentence was. It was in their language and I didn't understand it. I didn't know who my lawyer was or what they were saying. I never could understand what was happening."

Many Sept. 11 detainees say they have been denied phone calls and letters from their families, much like what Gosselin experienced in Thailand after her arrest on drug charges.

"They would play with your mail," she said. "They would hold things for two months or throw them away. When you did get letters, there would be missing parts or things blacked out.

"There were a lot of mental games in that prison. We were foreigners, and they didn't care."

Richard Atkins, an attorney for the International Legal Defense Counsel in Philadelphia, said those detained in the U.S. on relatively minor charges will suffer emotionally for being wrongly tarred with terrorism.

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