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9/11 prisoner abuse suit could be landmark

Rounded up, Muslim immigrants were beaten in jail. Such open-ended detentions and sweeps might be barred.

November 20, 2006|Richard A. Serrano | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Five years after Muslim immigrants were abused in a federal jail here, the guards who beat them and the Washington policymakers who decided to hold them for months without charges are being called to account.

Some 1,200 Middle Eastern men were arrested on suspicion of terrorism after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. No holding place was so notorious as Brooklyn's nine-story Metropolitan Detention Center. In a special unit on the top floor, detainees were smashed into walls, repeatedly stripped and searched, and often denied basic legal rights and religious privileges, according to federal investigations.

Now the federal Bureau of Prisons, which runs the jail, has revealed for the first time that 13 staff members have been disciplined, two of them fired. The warden has retired and moved to the Midwest.

And in what could turn out to be a landmark case, a lawsuit filed by two Brooklyn detainees against top Bush administration officials is moving forward in the federal courts in New York.

A judge turned down a request by FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III and former Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft to dismiss the lawsuit against them. The case is before an appeals court, where a panel of three judges signaled last month that they too believed it should go forward.

The suit, which also names top federal prison officials and individual guards as defendants, seeks an unspecified amount of money from the government. More significant, it hopes to hold federal law enforcement authorities responsible for their open-ended, "hold-until-cleared" policy for detainees. After Sept. 11, the FBI was in no rush to investigate the detainees, and many men were held in limbo. If the lawsuit prevails, it will create precedents that will probably bar authorities from carrying out such sweeping roundups in the future.

The case is proceeding with just one of the detainees who sued. The government settled with the other, former Manhattan deli operator Ehab Elmaghraby, who this year accepted a federal government payout of $300,000.

But Elmaghraby, who has returned to Egypt, said he could not forgive the guards who jammed a flashlight up his rectum.

"They destroyed me. They destroyed my family," he said in a recent telephone interview. "So I want the officers to stay one week inside those cells. They would kill themselves before the week was finished."

Ashcroft and others have defended the detentions. In a new book, Ashcroft wrote: "Was it worth it to detain and charge hundreds ... in order to find one or more of the key men sent to America to facilitate a second wave of attacks on the United States? I thought so then, and I think so more today."

Five investigations by the Department of Justice inspector general's office, most of them never publicized, documented wholesale abuse of the Muslim detainees at the Brooklyn detention center. In the months after the Sept. 11 attacks, 84 men were held there. None was charged in the attacks. Most were deported on immigration infractions.

One disturbing incident, repeated over and over, is particularly haunting -- inmates head-slammed into a wall where the staff had taped a T-shirt with an American flag printed on it. The motto on the shirt proclaimed: "These colors don't run." In time, that spot on the wall was covered with blood.

"They told me, 'Look at our flag. You see the blood that is coming down from our flag? We're going to make you bleed every day like this,' " Elmaghraby recalled.

He said they grabbed his back and sides and rushed him head-first into the wall. "Blood came out of my mouth," he said.

The inspector general determined that many guards were "emotionally charged" in the weeks after Sept. 11. A jail lieutenant told investigators that guards carried around "a great deal of anger." Another lieutenant said prisoners purposely were handed over to teams of up to seven guards, all of them "spiked with adrenaline." That lieutenant further described some of the guards as "talking crazy" and "getting ready for battle."

In legal briefs filed this year with the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals in New York, attorneys for Ashcroft and Mueller defended their policy, saying that Washington after Sept. 11 was "confronted with unprecedented law enforcement and security challenges." They said Ashcroft and Mueller had been working with "no clear judicial precedents in this extraordinary context."

Ashcroft in his recent book, "Never Again: Securing America and Restoring Justice," wrote that the goal was to prevent another catastrophic attack. He was not bothered by holding detainees for long periods.

"If we can't bring them to trial," he wrote, "so be it."

Mueller also has defended the decision, but in a speech to the ACLU acknowledged that the inspector general did "a very good job of pointing out areas where we can do better." He said that clearer criteria were needed for deciding when to hold immigrants as terrorism suspects and that law enforcement should do more to speed up investigations.

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