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Inaction in New York Prison Abuse Stirs Anger

Justice officials called the treatment of immigrants after 9/11 outrageous. The Bureau of Prisons has not held anyone to account.

May 21, 2005|Richard B. Schmitt and Richard A. Serrano | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — It was the first prison abuse scandal of the post-Sept. 11 era, when scores of immigrants were rounded up and jailed in New York after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

They were never charged with terrorism -- but they endured abusive treatment that Justice Department investigators concluded was outrageous and cruel. It included being slammed into walls and subjected to unnecessary body cavity searches, some of it captured on videotape.

More than three years after the incidents, despite a recommendation from the department's internal watchdog that a dozen correctional officers be disciplined, no one has been held to account. A Bureau of Prisons official said the agency was still reviewing the matter and "working as expeditiously as possible."

"It is important that our investigation be thorough and complete, leaving no stone unturned," spokeswoman Traci Billingsley said.

But the inaction has triggered criticism from human rights groups and dissension in the Justice Department. Recently, the department's inspector general expressed dismay that the Bureau of Prisons, the arm of the department overseeing the investigation, was dragging its feet.

U.S. Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales, in a recent interview with the Los Angeles Times, said he wasn't familiar with details of the matter but voiced concern.

"They need to review it," Gonzales said, "but honestly, review needs to end at some point."

The drawn-out process has angered former prisoners, many of them long since deported on immigration violations. Some have joined civil rights suits against U.S. authorities. But those actions are also stalled. The defendants, from prison guards up to former U.S. Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft, argue in court papers that they are immune from legal action because the circumstances of the detentions were within the scope of their official duties.

A federal judge in Louisiana dismissed one such suit, filed on behalf of a man held in solitary confinement for 73 days after Sept. 11, saying that security-related decisions by prison administrators deserved "great deference."

"They ... let them get away with it," said Yasser Ebrahim, who after Sept. 11 spent more than eight months in solitary at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, a maximum-security facility that has been the focal point of the abuse investigation.

Now Ebrahim is back in his native Alexandria, Egypt, running a jewelry business with his brother, who was also incarcerated for months at the Brooklyn jail. Ebrahim is a plaintiff in a class-action suit that a group of former prisoners has filed in Brooklyn federal court. He said he had a software business in the United States and was arrested because his visa renewal was a month overdue.

He alleges he was abusively strip-searched and subjected to inhumane conditions, including sleep deprivation, denial of medical care and interference with his ability to practice his Muslim faith.

He also says he was physically abused. Guards slammed him face-first against prison walls, leaving him with a bruised and bloodied nose for weeks, he said. Guards often stomped on his leg chains with their boots, causing excruciating pain, he said.

"Here in Egypt, I would say 'Yes, this could happen to anybody.' In America, it was shocking and disappointing," Ebrahim said by phone from Egypt. "We learned everything about democracy and human rights from the United States."

He is being represented by the Center for Constitutional Rights, a New York advocacy group.

Lawyers for other foreign nationals picked up across the country after Sept. 11 said Ebrahim's experience was hardly unique, and they were struck by the lack of progress in the lawsuits. One problem is that so many of the plaintiffs were deported, making it harder to press their abuse claims in U.S. courts where they might testify at a trial. Prosecutors have appeared reluctant to track down victims once they are no longer in the U.S. to make a case.

Karen Pennington, a Dallas lawyer, represented Majid al Shaihri when he was jailed in Denton, Texas. "He got down to 80 pounds in jail, and apparently had a bad ear infection," she recalled. "But instead of treating that, they pulled some of his teeth."

Her client was eventually deported to Saudi Arabia because his visa was out of status. His American-born wife "talked about a lawsuit," but Pennington said nothing came of it.

The guards defend their conduct, saying they performed well under difficult circumstances. Many at the Brooklyn facility lost friends and acquaintances in the collapse of the twin towers, and helped recover their remains at ground zero. The union representing the guards initially asked management to consider housing the detainees in another city because emotions were running high.

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