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2006-03-01

U.S. Agrees to Pay Egyptian Man $300K For Post-9/11 Detention in Unprecedented Settlement

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The U.S. government has agreed to pay $300,000 to settle a lawsuit brought by an Egyptian man who spent several months in U.S. detention even though he had been cleared of terror charges. Ehab Elmaghraby was one of over 100 Muslim men rounded up and detained after the 9/11 attacks. According to a lawsuit, he was repeatedly beaten and abused by prison guards. We go to Egypt to speak with Elmaghraby and we are joined by two of his attorneys. [includes rush transcript]

The U.S. has government has agreed to pay an Egyptian man $300,000 to settle a lawsuit alleging that the man was illegally detained during the round-up of hundreds of Arab and Muslim men inside the United States after the Sept. 11 attacks.

The man, Ehab Elmaghraby, was detained on Sept. 30, 2001. Federal agents came to his apartment in Queens New York in search of his landlord who–years earlier–had applied for pilot training. Even though he wasn’t the original target of the investigation, Elmaghraby was detained. He would spend nearly the next year in jail at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn.

In the end, Elmaghraby was deported after pleading guilty to the white-collar crime of credit card fraud. But for his year in detention he was treated like a wanted terrorist.

He was kept in a maximum security section of the jail reserved almost exclusively for Muslim or Arab men. Conditions were so bad that the New York Daily News described the site as "Brooklyn’s Abu Ghraib."

According to a lawsuit filed by Elmaghraby, he was beaten by prison guards. Threatened with death. Accused of being a terrorist. Repeatedly stripped search. Dragged on the ground while chained and shackled. Denied basic necessities like a mattress, pillow and toilet paper.

In one instance, he accused, a prison guard of making him bleed after a guard inserted a flashlight into him rectum. At other times they used pencils.

Elmaghraby wasn’t alone in claiming abuse inside the Metropolitan Detention Center. Two years ago the Justice Department’s Inspector General Glenn Fine issued a damning report implicating 20 guards in carrying out widespread abuse against the jailed men.

The report read, "Some officers slammed and bounced detainees against the wall, twisted their arms and hands in painful ways, stepped on their leg restraint chains and punished them by keeping them restrained for long periods of time."

The government actually videotaped much of the abuse but has so far resisted calls for it to be publicly released. However the public has seen images from the video showing the prison guards beating detainees.

The $300,000 settlement is believed to mark the first time the government has agreed to pay out money to a Muslim or Arab man jailed in the post 9/11 sweeps. Other lawsuits remain pending in court.

  • Ehab Elmaghraby, Egyptian citizen who was detained in New York City shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks and spent nearly a year in jail. According to his lawsuit he was shackled and kicked and punched until he bled. He was subjected to multiple unnecessary body-cavity searches, including one in which correction officers inserted a flashlight into his rectum, making him bleed. He joins us on the phone from Alexandria, Egypt.
  • Haeyoung Yoon, attorney with the Urban Justice Center representing Ehab Elmaghraby.
  • Mamoni Bhattacharyya, attorney with the law firm Weil, Gotshal & Manges.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We welcome you to Democracy Now!

EHAB ELMAGHRABY: Hi. How are you?

AMY GOODMAN: It is good to have you with us. We are also joined in studio by two of his attorneys Haeyoung Yoon of The Urban Justice Center and Mamoni Bhattacharyya of the law firm Weil, Gotshal & Manges. We welcome you both to Democracy Now!

MAMONI BHATTACHARYYA:Thank you for having us.

HAEYOUNG YOON: Thank you for having us.

AMY GOODMAN: Why don’t we begin with Ehab Elmaghraby. Your response to the settlement?

EHAB ELMAGHRABY: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Your feeling today after the legal case has been settled? Our producer is translating for our guest.

EHAB ELMAGHRABY: No, no, no, no. I feel not happy because I end up with a case — you know, at least with the money I get I’m going to cover all the medical problems I have since I returned back from New York. And all of these medical problems never happened before I start having when I was in MDC in Brooklyn. And the same time, you know, I end up with some money to start my life, because since I get back to New York, I won’t be able to work.

AMY GOODMAN: What ails you now? How are you feeling?

EHAB ELMAGHRABY: Since I have been in the MDC in Brooklyn, I have some problem in my throat. And they give me wrong medicine. And I end up with very bad hyper-thyroid.

AMY GOODMAN: I described, somewhat, what you have testified to in your case. But can you tell us exactly what happened to you after September 11?

EHAB ELMAGHRABY: Nothing, I have a normal life. I have my restaurant in Manhattan. And I work in the flea market also on the weekend. And I have a normal life. I have no problem at all. And then September 30, I was returning from the flea market on Sunday, and found four F.B.I. and two secret service at my house. They were talking to me like they were suspecting me because I’m Arab Muslim like I have something to do with September 11. And especially, the husband of the landlord down the stairs, he was applying to learn how to be a pilot. Five, six years ago. In some city. I don’t know exactly. So they think, you know, I have something to do with the husband of the landlord. They pick me up from my house and take me to the MDC in Brooklyn.

AMY GOODMAN: What happened to you there?

EHAB ELMAGHRABY: From the minute, you know, they take me there, they put me on the main floor, the special house unit, in the room, two by two. I found all kind of bad dreams— you know. I’ve never seen anything like this in my life. I stayed 13 years in New York. It is like I’m dreaming, like I’m in the sky. From the minute I put my leg in the MDC in Brooklyn, I found myself in a different situation. I never have this situation in my life.

AMY GOODMAN: What happened exactly?

EHAB ELMAGHRABY: Nobody talk. You know. If somebody want to talk, they talk by hand. Not talk by mouth.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean?

EHAB ELMAGHRABY: Like everybody knows to kick down. They’ll push you in the back, they’ll push you in the face. Chain all over the body. If you want to move, like one foot, they put chains on the body.

AMY GOODMAN: They put chains —

EHAB ELMAGHRABY: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: They told you you couldn’t speak?

EHAB ELMAGHRABY: No, no, no, no, no. You can’t open your mouth. If you open your mouth , they push you against the wall. I’m allowed only to make one phone call 15 minutes a month. Nobody was allowed to visit me.

My father tried to visit me. He came especially from Egypt all the way to New York to visit me. And they threw him out from MDC. The manager of the ninth floor with the special unit he tell him, "If I see you one more time at the MDC in Brooklyn, I’m going to put you in a new the cell next to him." They have to — he had to return back to Egypt after one week.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you have access to an attorney?

EHAB ELMAGHRABY: Yes. The only one who can visit me is my attorney.

AMY GOODMAN: Then what happened in terms of —

EHAB ELMAGHRABY: They say… like, they play games. They say we move you from special house unit, you know, until they receive clearance from he F.B.I they think I have something to do with 9/11. They receive, you know, some clearance from the F.B.I, and they play game. They say "No, we aren’t going to move from you the unit to the population." They keep like, you know, playing games with me like this. Until I end up with 11 months in the special house unit.

AMY GOODMAN: Were you sexually abused?

EHAB ELMAGHRABY: In my mouth, in my teeth, and you know, in my back. And all these problems I still have until now. You know, I have to do like a strip search, you know, what happened was they do the strip search between like four officers and one lieutenant. Everybody make fun. They take me outside from the cell and put me back in the cell. And if I’m going any place I’m going to — I have to like two, three strip searches when I’m going and the same thing when I come back.

AMY GOODMAN: How did you finally get out?

EHAB ELMAGHRABY: I get out, you know, my lawyer, she says to me, "Whatever the case is — you have to plead guilty. Other way, you never going to come out." She told me, "Forget about coming out. They have to give you case." So I end up pleading guilty. And I come out. And they agree, you know, come back to Egypt.

AMY GOODMAN: You pled guilty to?

EHAB ELMAGHRABY: Fraud credit card.

AMY GOODMAN: Credit card fraud.

EHAB ELMAGHRABY: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: And they released you.

EHAB ELMAGHRABY: Yes. They ask me if I want to return back to Egypt or I want to stay in the United States. I say no, no, no, I want to return back. Even I bought my own ticket, and they said, "No, we’re not going to use it, we’re going to use our ticket."

AMY GOODMAN: We are talking to Ehab Elmaghraby who was held in detention in New York for almost a year. His lawyers are also with us. His lawyers joining us in our studio here in New York. Haeyoung Yoon, you are with the Urban Justice Center. How did you get involved with this case?

Haeyoung Yoon: I work for the Community Development project of the Urban Justice Center. We are a nonprofit legal organization that provides free legal services to community based groups in New York City, and in the aftermath of September 11, we were contacted by a community-based group called Islamic circle of North America which was providing immediate advocacy to the detainees and their family members. We were contacted and learned about the abuse. So that’s how we got involved in this case.

AMY GOODMAN: How typical is Mr. Elmaghraby’s story?

Haeyoung Yoon: Mr. Elmaghraby’s story is, unfortunately, too typical. I think that our case along with the other detainees have clearly stated that the treatment that he received was very, very common. It was systematic. It was on a daily basis. The physical, the verbal abuse, he was subjected to the brutal mistreatment, the repetitive strip searches, denial of access to calling their lawyers, was on — it occurred on a daily basis and the fact that this type of treatment occurred in a systematic way because of the fact of they were Arab-Muslim men in the wake of September 11.

AMY GOODMAN: This is an unprecedented case. Mamoni Bhattacharyya, can you talk about how your own law firm got involved with this case?

MAMONI BHATTACHARYYA: Yes. We were, Weil Gotshal & Manges contacted by the Urban Justice Center last fall. We have a long-standing commitment— we are an international law firm, and have offices around the world, we are based in New York. And we have a long-standing institutional commitment to pro-bono work and service to the community. When we were contacted by the Urban Justice Center and told about this case, we became very interested, we considered it to be an important case with wide-ranging ramifications and we were happy to become involved in the effort.

AMY GOODMAN: How unusual is this, this settlement that has been arrived at?

MAMONI BHATTACHARYYA: It is the first settlement on record that the U.S. government has ever entered into taking accountability for the abuses and the mistreatment of people held in detention in the aftermath of 9/11 around the world. From Abu Ghraib to Guantanamo to right here in Brooklyn.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you see other cases following?

MAMONI BHATTACHARYYA: Well, there’s — we have another plaintiff in this case who continues to fight on in his battle. There’s also a co-pending Class Action litigation brought by several other detainees whose are held in Brooklyn.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the other plaintiffs?

MAMONI BHATTACHARYYA: Our other plaintiff, is a Pakistani immigrant. He, too, was rounded up in the sweep after 9/11and held in the MDC. Again, white-collar crime, charges of white-collar crime were the basis for his initial arrest, having a false ID. However, he was held for months in isolation, abused, physically, verbally, severely beaten. Isolated from legal counsel, from any contact with the outside world, with no end in sight. And he was ultimately cleared of all links to terrorist charges. There was never any credible link to any kind of terrorist activity. And when he was ultimately cleared, he was finally deported. But not after. Only after being held for months and months and abused and mistreated.

AMY GOODMAN: How far along is this case?

MAMONI BHATTACHARYYA: He was recently brought back to the U.S. and deposed in early February. And after that, the case is proceeding.

AMY GOODMAN: We are going to break and come whack to this discussion. [break]

AMY GOODMAN: Ehab, when you were here in New York at the MDC did you think you would ever get out?

EHAB ELMAGHRABY: No. I was thinking it’s the end of my life, you know. I think, you know, like the way they treat me, I did something wrong in my life and this is the end of my life. I am never going to see my family again. I’m never going to see the street again.

AMY GOODMAN: What gave you hope to make it through?

EHAB ELMAGHRABY: From all the bad things I saw around me, you know. It was not only with me. There was some other people also you know. The way they treat me, the way, you know. I have never talked to people like this. I never dealt with people like this. I have been 13 years in New York. I was seen watching TV and I saw all the life, you know. I saw the newspaper. I never see this in my life. I was thinking like I’m watching a movie, you know, like I’m having a bad dream, you know?

AMY GOODMAN: Before you were detained, you had run a restaurant and you also had a stall at a flea market.

EHAB ELMAGHRABY: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you ever plan to come back to the united states?

EHAB ELMAGHRABY: I wish I could come back. I don’t think I’m allowed — I’m not allowed to come back. I wish I could come back because I love New York, you know.

AMY GOODMAN: The other men who were detained with you, was the same thing happening to them?

EHAB ELMAGHRABY: I’m sorry?

AMY GOODMAN: The other men who you were detained with, was the same kind of abuse happening to them? Were they being abused in prison? The other prisoners.

EHAB ELMAGHRABY: Ok.

AMY GOODMAN: Were the other prisoners — were the other prisoners also being hurt by the guards?

EHAB ELMAGHRABY: Yes. Most of the people, you know, like you can say 99%.

AMY GOODMAN: Have you told people in Alexandria what happened to you?

EHAB ELMAGHRABY: I return back to Alexandria, I have been like — been watching [inaudible].

AMY GOODMAN: What is the — is there any lasting effect of the abuse on you?

EHAB ELMAGHRABY: The problem I have in my chest from the hyper thyroid. All this medicine I have been taking, from the hyper-thyroid. I have to be, you know, on medicine, you know. I have been taking some medicine like three, four times a day, you know. I won’t be able to work. I have to pay for all the medication. Have no insurance in Egypt. I lost all of my benefits, you know, when I worked in New York all this time.

AMY GOODMAN: Haeyoung Yoon, why did you settle?

Haeyoung Yoon: This is a really hard choice for Ehab Elmaghraby. It is clear that he, you know, started this case wanting to seek justice for how he was treated. He, I think, understands that he was mistreated because of who he is, his race, and his religion. But it was a hard choice because as Ehab alluded to earlier in his interview that he continues to have health problems as a result of the injuries he suffered while he was at Metropolitan Detention Center. So he has hyper thyroid condition.

But it was misdiagnosed as asthma without being given any kind of medical examination. And he was treated as if he had asthma. And I think that aggravated his hyper thyroid condition and he only found out about this when he was transferred to another corrections facility in — before he was deported back to Egypt. So as a result of that, when he returned to Egypt he was not able to find employment because he had to deal with his medical issues and , you know, he was facing a very, very difficult choice where he — although he wanted to continue he needed to deal with taking care of his health.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you want to take this to trial, Ehab Elmaghraby?

EHAB ELMAGHRABY: For now no, no. I don’t want to do anything. I want to finish the case like this. You know. [inaudible] I’m happy, at least with the money I get, I’m going to have to cover, you know, all — money I have taken from my family. I have a big loan I’m taking from the bank I have to pay back. I’m going for surgery the end of March. I have to cover all these, you know.

AMY GOODMAN: Your final words as we end this discussion? Mr. Elmaghraby?

EHAB ELMAGHRABY: Nothing. I wish this not happen again, you know. Because, you know, when the people live in the United States , they love New York. They love any city, you know, wherever they live. You know, the people working in MDC, they make — idea in my mind or somebody else’s mind, you know, very bad about, you know, this country or the city. They say it is very bad peoples. I have been dealing with some other people for 13 years. I never have no problem with nobody.

AMY GOODMAN: Ehab Elmaghraby, I want to thank you for being with us from Alexandria, Egypt. Also, your attorneys Mamoni Bhattacharyya and Haeyoung Yoon. Thank you so much.

Haeyoung Yoon: Thank you Amy.

Mamoni Bhattacharyya: Thank you Amy.

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