In the days and weeks after 9/11, a frightened United States rounded up anyone who looked like they might be Arab or Muslim. They were thrown into prison for months on end and left to languish in the fear that they would never be released. No charges were laid, no lawyers were allowed, there were no interpreters for those who had only a minimal grasp of English, and physical abuse was commonplace.
Amongst those detained were two Egyptian brothers, Hany and Yasser Ibrahim. It has now been four years since they have stepped foot on American soil and they are nervous about being back in New York. The last time they were in the US they were in a federal prison, held without charges, because they looked “foreign” and Muslim.
The two brothers and four others (two other Egyptians, a Palestinian, and a British citizen) have filed a class action lawsuit against US officials over their detention. In their lawsuit they have named numerous officials including Attorney General John Ashcroft, FBI Director Robert Mueller, and Commissioner of Immigration and Naturalization James Ziglar. The suit also names the prison warden and prison guards.
The lawsuit details the personal experiences of the six men and their horrifying stories. (note: in the following excerpts, "Doe Defendant" refers to unnamed prison guards, "MDC" refers to Metropolitan Detention Center)
Plaintiff Asif-ur-Rehman Safi
Still in handcuffs, chains, and shackles, Mr. Safi was taken by the Doe Defendants to the Special Housing Unit on the Ninth Floor of the MDC. Once there, the Doe Defendants again strip-searched Mr. Safi and subjected him to physical and verbal abuse. Among other things, they bent back his thumbs, stepped on his bare feet with their shoes, and pushed him into a wall so hard that he fainted. After Mr. Safi fell to the floor, they kicked him in the face. The Doe Defendant in charge, a lieutenant, called Mr. Safi a “terrorist,” boasting that Mr. Safi could expect continued harsh treatment because of his involvement in the September 11th terrorist attacks. The same Doe Defendant threatened to punish him if he even so much as smiled. Mr. Safi offered no resistance.
While confined in MDC’s Special Housing Unit, Mr. Safi was not allowed to make any telephone calls for nearly two months, until November 26, 2001, when the Doe Defendants finally permitted him to make one telephone call. He immediately called theFrench Consulate, which sent someone to meet him at the MDC on November 29, 2001. At that meeting, Mr. Safi was told that the INS had given Consulate officials (false) assurances that he would soon be released. But for the fact that Mr. Safi’s wife included the Consulate's telephone number in a letter to him, Mr. Safi would have been unable to contact the Consulate. The Doe Defendants had refused to give him the French Consulate’s address or telephone number.
Plaintiff Syed Amjad Ali Jaffri
Two days after his arrest, on September 29, 2001, Mr. Jaffri was taken to the MDC, where he was strip searched, fingerprinted and given an orange jumpsuit. All of his personal belongings, including his personal identification, were confiscated. He was placed in a tiny solitary (windowless) cell in the Special Housing Unit. Mr. Jaffri was confined to that cell nearly all day, nearly every day, for the next six months, until April 1, 2002.
Whenever Mr. Jaffri was removed from his cell, he was first strip searched and then placed in handcuffs, chains, and shackles. Four or more Doe Defendants typically escorted him to his destination, frequently inflicting unnecessary pain along the way, for example, by deliberately kicking Mr. Jaffri’s manacles and shackles into his lower body. Despite the pain, Mr. Jaffri offered no resistance, fearing that resistance would only make matters worse. On most days, Mr. Jaffri’s cell was cold and uncomfortable. He had great difficulty sleeping at night, because the lights stayed on 24 hours a day. For the first two months, Mr. Jaffri was denied a bar of soap. He received only two squares (pieces) of toilet paper per day. His meals were served without eating utensils.
When he was first brought to the MDC’s Special Housing Unit, for example, one Doe Defendant, in the presence of other Doe Defendants, told him: “Whether you participated in the September 11th terrorist attacks or not, if the FBI arrested you, that’s good enough for me. I’m going to do to you what you did. Several Doe Defendants then slammed Mr. Jaffri’s head into a wall, severely loosening his lower front teeth and causing him extreme pain. He was never allowed to see a dentist.
Plaintiffs Yasser Ebrahim and Hany Ibrahim
Yasser and Hany each suffered serious injuries as a result of the beatings received upon their arrival at MDC. Their arms and noses remained black and swollen for several days thereafter. Even though Yasser and Hany were in considerable pain and had great difficulty breathing, they were not treated for their injuries.
During his incarceration at MDC, Yasser was locked in his cell for nearly 24 hours a day almost every day.
Whenever Yasser was removed from his cell, he was first strip searched and placed in handcuffs, chains, and shackles. The Doe Defendants frequently inflicted unnecessary pain, while escorting Yasser outside of his cell, by deliberately kicking the manacles and shackles into his lower body.
The lights remained on in Yasser’s cell 24 hours a day, making it difficult, if not impossible, for him to sleep at night. To ensure that Yasser remained sleep deprived, the Doe Defendant banged on his door every 15 minutes, at all hours of the day and night.
To say that US officials are unhappy about the lawsuit would be an understatement. While the six plaintiffs are in the US, they are required to be in the constant custody of federal marshals and they are prohibited from making any phone calls while they are here. The brothers admit to being afraid but they are determined to go ahead with the lawsuit. Despite their ordeal, they maintain a surprising faith in the American judicial system.
I'm seeking justice," said Yasser, 33, who had a Web site design business in New York before he and his younger brother, Hany, 29, a delicatessen worker, were delivered in shackles to a detention center 19 days after Sept. 11. "It's from the same system that did us injustice before. But I have faith in this system. I know what happened before was a mistake.
An additional twist to the story involves Rachel Meeropol. She is a lawyer for the Center for Constitutional Rights which represents the brothers. A few weeks ago, the Center filed a class action lawsuit against the US government in respect of the NSA warrantless domestic spying. Meeropol is one of the plaintiffs in the case claiming that her private communications with her clients (such as the Ibrahim brothers) may have been illegally monitored.
It was a time of many “firsts” for the US government. The first use of racial profiling, the first open disregard for the law, the first holding of people outside of the normal judiciary system, the first unapologetic physical abuse of prisoners. What these detainees suffered in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 was a harbinger of things to come. It foreshadowed Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, extraordinary renditions, and the escalation into torture. The Metropolitan Detention Centre was the birthplace.
It goes without saying that the US government has filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit on the grounds that September 11 created “special factors” that overrides people’s rights. It is the same worn out excuses we have heard for so long. 9/11 created “special” circumstances, 9/11 changed everything, 9/11 automatically granted special powers to the government.
9/11 means never having to say you’re sorry.