Some of the Middle Eastern immigrants arrested in the days after 9/11 have alleged abuse at the hands of guards at a detention center in New York City. In a class action lawsuit, they detail these allegations, including humiliation, sleep deprivation, physical and sexual abuse. We speak with the New York Daily News reporter who reported on the story, the attorney in the suit and we go to Egypt to speak with one of the plaintiffs. [includes rush transcript]
We return now to our in-depth coverage of the treatment of people arrested, detained or imprisoned as part of the so-called war on terror. Today’s story takes us not to Guantanamo Bay or to Abu Ghraib or to the Bagram Air Base. It happened right here in New York at a facility some human rights lawyers are calling "Brooklyn’s Abu Ghraib."
In the days after the World Trade Center Attacks, 1,200 Middle Eastern immigrants nationwide were picked up by the Immigration and Naturalization service — now folded into the Homeland Security Department.
At least 84 of these detainees were held at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn. Some were detained for months under a so-called "hold until cleared" policy. The policy permitted Muslim and Arab non-citizens to be arrested and held in custody until cleared by the FBI.
In 2002, seven plaintiff’s filed a class action lawsuit against employees of the Metropolitan Detention Center and the U.S government — challenging the constitutionality of this policy.
The plaintiffs have also alleged abuse during their time in detention. The New York Daily News ran a major expose on February 20th detailing these allegations, including humiliation, sleep deprivation, physical and sexual abuse. And though the Inspector General at the Justice Department substantiated many of these charges — the Department has refused to prosecute any officers at the Metropolitan Detention Center.
The Bureau of Prisons did not return our calls when we asked them to comment on the case. And the Justice Department did not respond to our request for information on their investigation.
- Larry Cohler -Esses, reporter with the New York Daily News. He wrote the article, "Brooklyn’s Abu Ghraib".
- Nancy Chang, attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights, which is representing plaintiffs who claim they were abused and held unconstitutionally at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn in the case _ Turkmen v. Ashcroft_.
- Yasser Ibrahim, was held for 8 months at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn. He is a plaintiff in the case Turkmen v. Ashcroft filed by the Center for Consitutional RIghts.
AMY GOODMAN: We are joined in the studio by Nancy Chang, of the Center for Constitutional Rights, the lawyer representing plaintiffs in the suit, and by Larry Cohler-Esses, the reporter who wrote the article for The New York Daily News. On the phone from Egypt, we have Yasser Ibrahim, one of the plaintiffs in the suit. Larry, let’s begin with you. Tell us the story of MDC.
LARRY COHLER-ESSES: Well, as you said, there were 84 prisoners that were basically swept off the streets of New York and elsewhere in the country. In the days right after 9/11, there was a policy by the Justice Department basically to get any immigrants on any irregularities that they could find on them responding to reports, tips that they got that people saw that there were immigrants they were suspicious of. If those immigrants had visa violations or any other irregularities in the record, they were basically put into prison. And according to Justice Department’s policy, they were held there while the FBI. investigated to see if they might have any connection to 9/11. In the case of MDC in Brooklyn, in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, this was the place to which those prisoners were sent that were considered "of high interest." These were people that the Justice Department determined were the people they were most interested in learning about, most suspicious of, and they report not in a regular prison population, but in what was called the "ADMAXSHU," the maximum security isolation jail cells.
AMY GOODMAN: Special housing unit?
LARRY COHLER-ESSES: That’s right, special housing unit. In that special housing unit, they could be held anywhere from weeks to many months.
AMY GOODMAN: This is solitary?
LARRY COHLER-ESSES: This was solitary confinement for 23 hours per day. In theory, they were given one hour a day of recreation in a kind of limited, semi-outdoor space, but as I found out when I interviewed many of them, they were often just thrown out in the middle of the winter into this outdoor space without any clothing except their light cotton prison garb. So many of them chose just to stay in prison 24 hours a day because they didn’t feel like freezing. Some of those who did go out for the hour of recreation per day were not allowed back in, sometimes for three, according to Ahmed Khalifa, he stood four hours knocking on the door freezing, trying to get back in, while the guards basically looked from the inside and locked him out.
AMY GOODMAN: How hard is it to get this information?
LARRY COHLER-ESSES: Well, actually, it’s not that hard. It’s just not that publicized. The Inspector General of the Justice Department, Glen Fine, did an initial report in June 2003 looking into allegations of mistreatment of these prisoners. At the time he learned that there had been a memo put out by the justice department ordering videotapes be made of these prisoners, both in their prison cells and whenever they were taken out. He noted in the June 2003 report that he’d asked about these videotapes. He was told they were destroyed, they were lost, they were taped over. A few months later he got a tip leading him to a room way back in the Metropolitan Detention Center, and there was a stack of 400 of these videotapes just sitting there. He looked at them found out that many of the accounts that the guards had given them of their treatment of these prisoners were demonstratively untrue. There they were on videotape being beat up. They were chained at their feet and chained with their hands behind their backs, being smashed headfirst into walls. They were being stripped naked with women around these — I don’t want to say it’s proper for any prisoners, but these were Muslim and Arab prisoners who had a keen sense of the humiliation of that. This was also on videotape. And there were also videotapes, at least one videotape of some prisoners with light cotton clothes being kept out in the cold weather during their one hour of recreation per day.
AMY GOODMAN: For listeners and viewers who are joining us now, we’re not talking about Abu Ghraib. We’re not talking about Guantanamo Bay. We are talking about Brooklyn, New York, the Metropolitan Detention Center, also known as the MDC. Nancy Chang of the Center for Constitutional Rights also with us, can you talk about your clients and the lawsuits you brought?
NANCY CHANG: Certainly, Amy. What Larry describes was horrific and lives were destroyed. Our clients are seven men, six of whom are Muslim, and one is actually Indian and Hindu, but apparently was mistaken for Muslim or perhaps had colleagues who were Muslim and was arrested for that reason. And many of them are extremely distraught over what happened to them. To this date, some of them are unable to focus enough to hold a job, and their reputations have been ruined. They have been stigmatized. They are seeking the truth in this lawsuit. This lawsuit is called Turpin v. Ashcroft, and they are seeking money damages so they can continue with their lives. And I can tell you about the suit.
AMY GOODMAN: Tell us.
NANCY CHANG: In some detail. Basically, we are alleging that the government suspended its normal rules under the Constitution. It used, as a pretext, their immigration violations to hold them in detention and sidestepped all the protections that are in place for criminal detainees, which include an arraignment, probable cause hearings, and the like, right to counsel. And by sidestepping this and holding them in immigration detention and then changing to unpublished rules, the immigration individuals were held for as long as eight months and, in some cases, even longer than that. They were not in any way connected with terrorism. None of these individuals were. They were picked up in the most haphazard manner, and the designation that Larry mentioned, the "high-interest" designation was quite arbitrary, and before very long, government realized that these individuals were of no interest to their terrorism investigation.
AMY GOODMAN: Yasser Ibrahim joins us from Egypt. He was held for eight months says at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn. We welcome you to Democracy Now!
YASSER IBRAHIM: Hello, Amy. How are you doing?
AMY GOODMAN: Good. Can you tell us, what happened to you? When were you picked? What happened to you at MDC?
YASSER IBRAHIM: Well, I was picked up on September 30, 2001, me and my brother and our roommates, which were all Arab and Muslims. And we were taken to the immigration building and spent the night there. And the next day they took us to MDC, where we stayed for a little more than eight months.
AMY GOODMAN: And what happened to you there?
YASSER IBRAHIM: Well, in addition to everything that Larry mentioned and Nancy and what they have mentioned, we went through a nightmare, physical torture and psychological torture. We’ve been stripped of the basic rights of human beings. We’ve been stripped in front of women. We were given the worst food you can imagine. We’ve been physically abused, slammed for particularly no reason at all. And are I stayed in solitary confinement for 8 1/2 months until I was deported, and every time I asked for why I was being treated this way, and they always give me the same answer, that I was of high interest to the government or what they used to call me as maximum security, maximum security inmate. And then after 8 1/2 months of this torture, they just took me away and booked me on a plane and sent me back to Egypt.
AMY GOODMAN: And charged with anything?
YASSER IBRAHIM: What’s that?
AMY GOODMAN: Were you charged with anything?
YASSER IBRAHIM: No, no, nothing at all, just immigration violation, because I overstayed my visa.
AMY GOODMAN: You talk about — you talk about these months in solitary confinement. What does that mean? How do you get by?
YASSER IBRAHIM: In solitary confinement?
AMY GOODMAN: Yes.
YASSER IBRAHIM: Well, I find it hard to — for your listeners to imagine being in a small room, very small room with very small window on the corridor. It looked onto the street, but they block this window after two months of our stay there. You have only the walls to stare at for 8 1/2 months. Well, I’ve tried to stay focused, you know, because I knew that it was like physical and psychological torture, and I tried to keep my faith. I spend my time reading and praying and hoping for the day of my release. That’s all I can recall now from this experience. You know, I’m trying to forget all the bad experience that I went through.
AMY GOODMAN: Yasser Ibrahim is joining us from Alexandria, Egypt, where he was deported after being held for 8 1/2 months at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, never charged, which brings me to a story in the headlines today here in the United States. A federal judge ordering that the Bush Administration can no longer keep U.S. citizen Jose Padilla in jail if he’s not charged with a crime. Padilla has been in prison for more than 2 1/2 years as a so-called enemy combatant, never been charged with a crime, never appeared in a courtroom challenging his detention. Nancy Chang, what is the significance of this? I mean, this is separate from MDC, but related in one way.
NANCY CHANG: It’s very related. The case of Jose Padilla is another instance of the Executive Branch, the Bush Administration asserting broad powers to obtain people, creating brand-new rules in the war on terrorism. In this case, the government took the position that it could take any U.S. citizen, toss them into a military brig, and again, keep them outside the criminal justice system with all the checks and balances that I had mentioned earlier, right to counsel, probable cause hearings, and the like. The importance of this ruling cannot be understated. It’s saying that the government, the Executive Branch, is not above the Constitution. And this is a critical ruling for all of us, all of us stand at risk of arbitrary government detention at this point in time.
AMY GOODMAN: In The Washington Post today, it says rejecting a series of arguments put forward by the government, the District Court Judge Henry Floyd, said the indefinite detention of Jose Padilla, the Administration said is a terrorist supporter of al-Qaeda, is illegal and that Padilla must be released from the naval brig in Charleston, South Carolina, within 45 days or charged with a crime. Floyd said to do otherwise would not only offend the rule of law and violate this country’s constitutional tradition, but it would also be a betrayal of this nation’s commitment to the separation of powers that safeguards our democratic values and our individual liberties. Judge Floyd was appointed by President Bush two years ago.
NANCY CHANG: That’s right. He also sits in the Fourth Circuit, the most conservative circuit in the country, and that is where the case will go next, the Fourth Circuit will hear this on government’s appeal.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to end by asking Larry Cohler-Esses what most shocked you in doing this series, and are you still waiting to get information under the Freedom of Information Act? What is classified, what isn’t?
LARRY COHLER-ESSES: There was a lot of shocking things, such as doing frequent strippings, strip searches, endless strip searches, sometimes up to six a day, objects being put up the rectums of the people being strip searched. But the funny thing, the thing that shocked me the most was not that, but learning that the criminal investigation of these activities came to a halt because the Justice Department claims they could not pursue the investigation since they had deported all the inmates. That brought me up short and reminded me of the old Yiddish joke of the child who murders his parents and then throws himself at the mercy of the judge because he’s an orphan. They did not pursue video depositions. They did not pursue closed-circuit TV depositions, or even a special visa that exists that could bring people back here temporarily to testify. All of the witnesses, all of the ex-inmates I talked to were ready to come back to testify. Supposedly there are still investigations going on now, but not one of the 12 people I interviewed had ever been approached for testimony.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, we are not only talking about Arab Muslims who have been the hardest hit in this country after 9/11 in this MDC detention, as Nancy mentioned also, a man from India and you report on Israeli Jews who were arrested as well.
LARRY COHLER-ESSES: Five Israeli Jews were among those sort of swept off the streets in the frantic mania after 9/11. They had been working for a moving company without a work visa out in New Jersey. Somebody had seen "individuals of Middle Eastern appearance" standing on the roof of this New Jersey moving company with a view of the World Trade Center. They saw the attack. They got their video cameras out. They thought that they were in the presence of something amazing, terrible, and they filmed it. Whoever saw this reported to the police that they seemed to be very excited and very enthusiastic. Later in the day after this report came in, they were stopped by while in a van on the New Jersey Turnpike. Just to give you an idea of how logical the process of sorting out these prisoners were, they were considered prisoners of high interest, the most suspicious prisoners, and put into maximum security detention at the Metropolitan Detention Center.
AMY GOODMAN: For how long?
LARRY COHLER-ESSES: They were there for, I think, four months. During that time, they underwent torture and abuse, just like all the others.
AMY GOODMAN: Yasser Ibrahim from Alexandria, now, in Egypt, your final words as we wrap up this segment.
YASSER IBRAHIM: Well, I think I’m interested in this morning, but as I said, what happened to me happened on American soil —
AMY GOODMAN: We will leave it there. Thank you very much for joining us, Larry, as well of The New York Daily News for this very important report and Nancy Chang of the Center for Constitutional Rights.