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Behind Bars, a Remnant of a Desperate Time

Ali Partovi is said to be the last detainee among 1,200 arrested after 9/11. Five years later, there has been no full accounting of these individuals.

October 15, 2006|Martha Mendoza | Associated Press Writer

In a jail cell at an immigration detention center in Arizona sits a man who is not charged with a crime, not suspected of a crime, not considered a danger to society.

But he has been in custody for five years. His name is Ali Partovi. And according to the Department of Homeland Security, he is the last to be held of about 1,200 Arab and Muslim men arrested in the United States after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

There has been no full accounting of these individuals. Nor has a promised federal policy to protect against unrestricted sweeps been produced.

Human rights groups tried to track the detainees. Members of Congress denounced the arrests. They believed that all of those who had been arrested had been deported, released or processed through the criminal justice system.

This summer, it was reported that an Algerian man, Benemar "Ben" Benatta, was the last detainee, and that his transfer to Canada had closed the book on post-9/11 sweeps.

But the Associated Press has learned that at least one person -- Partovi -- is still being held. The Department of Homeland Security insists he is the last one in custody.

"Certainly it's not our goal as an agency to keep anyone detained indefinitely," said department spokesman Dean Boyd. He said that the agency would like to remove Partovi from the U.S. but that the detainee refuses to return to his homeland, Iran.

So he remains, a curious remnant of a desperate time.

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Within hours of the Sept. 11 attacks -- before it was even clear whether they were over -- the FBI was ordered to identify the terrorists who had slipped so smoothly into American society and to catch anyone who might have been working with them. The FBI operation was called PENTTBOM; it was swift and fierce.

When in doubt, said the orders, arrest now and ask questions later. Law enforcement was authorized to use immigration charges as needed. The risk of allowing terrorists to slip away just because there wasn't ample evidence to hold them on terrorism charges could not be tolerated.

Then-Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft called for "aggressive detentions." Hundreds of individuals who were not terrorists, nor associated with terrorists, were temporarily taken into city, county and federal custody.

The initial reaction to the sweeps was confusion. Members of Congress, leading civil rights organizations, Arab and Muslim activists, even the Justice Department's internal watchdogs, didn't know how to react.

"After 9/11, everyone was caught off guard. There was so much secrecy surrounding the government's policies that it took a number of months before the public and civil liberties groups began unraveling what the government was doing," said Lee Gelernt, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney.

Then came demands, from Congress, from the Justice Department's inspector general, from the ACLU and Human Rights Watch, and from Arab and Muslim activists, that these individuals must be accounted for.

To date, that hasn't occurred.

"The fact is, the United States has not come forward with information on what happened to these people, or released their names," said Rachel Meeropol, a staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights, an advocacy organization that represents several detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. "Our understanding is that the majority of these people who were swept up on immigration violations were then held in detention until they were cleared of any connection to terrorism. We believe that accounts for the vast majority of people who were swept up."

Here's what is known: 762 of the 1,200 PENTTBOM arrestees were charged with immigration violations at the behest of the FBI because agents thought they might be associated with terrorism. Partovi was one of these 762. Much as Partovi used a false passport, nearly all of these detainees had violated immigration laws, either by overstaying their visas, entering the country illegally, or violating some other immigration law.

Unlike Partovi, almost everyone was either deported or released within a few months.

There were still at least 438 other individuals who were not accounted for. Most of those individuals, Justice Department officials said, were released within days. But at least 93 were charged with federal crimes and processed through the courts, and an unknown number were deemed material witnesses.

The repercussions are still being felt, advocates say.

"People lost years of their lives and families were ripped apart in the frenzy of fear," said Kerri Sherlock, director of policy and planning at the Rights Working Group, an advocacy organization in Washington, D.C. "Do we really want to be a country that locks people up without guaranteeing their basic constitutional rights?"

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