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Some Detained After Sept. 11 Going Public About Treatment

June 08, 2003|Richard A. Serrano | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — An increasing number of the hundreds of people who were swept up for questioning in the weeks and months after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon are stepping forward to describe their treatment while in the custody of federal agents.

Their accounts are emerging as internal investigators at the Justice Department issued a report last week sharply criticizing the handling of detainees following Sept. 11, 2001, and taking agents to task for "significant problems" that led to false arrests, prolonged imprisonments and physical and mental abuse.

On Wednesday, a group of former detainees and the families of others still being held or who were deported gathered at a news conference on Capitol Hill and shared their stories.

Peymon Assadinia, an Iranian immigrant who has lived in the United States for 19 years, said he was picked up in San Jose on an expired passport, then jailed there and in San Diego and Arizona. After nine days behind bars, often filthy and hungry, sometimes shackled and handcuffed, Assadinia said, he was interrogated at length before being released.

He said he was asked repeatedly: "Are you sane or insane? Are you dead or alive? Are you angry in any way? Do you feel in control of your life?"

Immediately after Sept. 11, there was strong public backing of the government's efforts to ferret out anyone who might be connected to the attacks. Most of those detained were Muslim men who faced visa and other immigration violations, although a few have been charged criminally.

One person has emerged as a possible Sept. 11 accomplice -- Zacarias Moussaoui, the so-called 20th hijacker, who is awaiting trial in federal court in Alexandria, Va.

Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft has defended the administration's efforts to detain potential terrorism suspects, saying that the detentions were justified to protect the nation from further attacks. On Thursday, he asked Congress for more terrorism-fighting tools, including broadening the range of crimes that would carry a death sentence.

"Every day the Justice Department is working tirelessly," Ashcroft said, "taking this war to the hide-outs and havens of our enemies."

But the issue has fueled a politically charged debate and the arrests have had a huge effect on the lives of many individuals who have no connection to terrorism.

Civil liberties groups and defense lawyers around the country say the Justice Department improperly used federal immigration laws to detain foreign-born residents and then label them terrorism suspects.

Although many of those detained have since been released or deported, a few have gone to trial.

Last week, a federal jury hearing a complex case in Detroit convicted two of four men on terrorism and conspiracy charges. The jurors acquitted a third man on terrorism charges but found him guilty of fraud.

The fourth man, Farouk Ali-Haimoud, was acquitted of all charges. When he heard the verdict Tuesday, the 22-year-old bowed his head and wept. He said later that his tears were for his friends who were convicted.

"I love this country," Ali-Haimoud said after he returned from jail to his mother's home in Detroit. "But I advise the government to go carefully, and don't rush to judgment. What they are doing is right, to get the terrorists. But don't get the wrong people."

Imad Hamad, Michigan director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, said the Ali-Haimoud acquittal "serves as a clear example of how many Arab Americans have been caught in the middle of the war on terror and have had their lives destroyed."

Abdel El Nashar, a Muslim of Egyptian descent living in Minnesota, is among those held but never tried. He described losing his job at a convenience store after a fellow employee who was suspicious of him alerted the FBI. He ended up being accused of making bombs and of being a terrorist. Later released and now "on the brink of bankruptcy," he said has tried with no success to have his name cleared.

"These allegations," he added, "caused me physical trauma, emotional distress," and have led him to seek clinical help for depression.

Nadin Hamoui said she and her parents, all from Syria, were jailed on immigration violations after more than a dozen federal officers banged on their door at 6 a.m. on a Muslim holiday. She said she and her mother were held for nine months; her father for 10.

"We had to fight in the jail to sleep, eat and drink decently," she said. "I cried many nights because I felt like I was going to die from the freezing cold."

Others have reported encountering new troubles on their return to freedom. In an e-mail to the Los Angeles Times, Ghulam Rasool Chisthi, deported from Utah to Pakistan after being convicted of lying on his visa application, said he fell behind on rent and had to close his religious school back home.

"I lost my honour and respect," he wrote.

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