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9/11 prisoner abuse suit could be landmark

Times Staff Writer

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.

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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.

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“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.

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“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.”

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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.

Elmaghraby moved to the U.S. in 1990, married and operated a deli near Times Square in Manhattan. Nineteen days after Sept. 11, he was arrested, apparently because his landlord in Queens had applied for pilot training.

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For the first three months in the jail, he said, he was denied a blanket, pillow, mattress and toilet paper. He was locked away in his bare feet.

“No shoes for a terrorist,” he said he was told.

He said he was repeatedly strip-searched, dragged on the ground and punched until his teeth shattered. He said that he was displayed naked in front of a female staffer, and that guards violated him with a flashlight and pencil.

Elmaghraby, 39, broke down crying in a recent interview. “They don’t treat you like a person,” he said. “They treat you like an animal.”

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He was held for nearly a year -- until August 2002. After pleading guilty to minor credit card fraud charges, he was deported to Alexandria, Egypt.

He has lost track of his wife in New York, he said, and his deli business went under. And he spent most of his $300,000 settlement to repair his stomach and esophagus, which he said were damaged because jail doctors did not properly treat him for severe indigestion and hypertension.

The former detainee with whom the lawsuit is proceeding, Javaid Iqbal, is also 39. Iqbal, a Pakistani, came to America a dozen years ago. He married and he worked as a cable repairman on Long Island. He was arrested in November 2001, apparently after agents interviewed him in his apartment and spotted a magazine showing the twin towers collapsing.

He said he was mocked as a “Muslim terrorist and a killer.” He was strip-searched, punched in the face and kicked in the back. He said guards urinated in his toilet, then turned off the water so it would not flush.

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He was denied a copy of the Koran. “No prayer for terrorists,” he said he was told.

Iqbal was released at the end of July 2002. He pleaded guilty to having false immigration papers and was deported to Faisalabad, Pakistan. His lawyers declined to let him be interviewed.

Guards at the detention center first denied there was any mistreatment, then slowly came forward. Finally videotapes were uncovered that showed abuse, including detainees head-butted into the T-shirt on the wall.

Traci Billingsley, a spokeswoman for the federal Bureau of Prisons, said 13 staff members have been disciplined. Two were fired, two received 30-day suspensions and one was suspended for 21 days. Two more were suspended for four days, three for two days, and three were demoted.

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Warden Dennis Hasty retired in April 2002. He is named as a defendant in the lawsuit but his lawyer, Michael L. Martinez, said Hasty had not been aware of the abuse and had been “appalled and upset” to learn of the allegations.

The lawsuit was filed in Brooklyn in May 2004. Last year, U.S. District Judge John Gleeson ruled against a bid by Ashcroft and Mueller for a dismissal.

The judge said the furor over Sept. 11 did not warrant such drastic measures. He rejected, he wrote, “the argument that the post-Sept. 11 context wholly extinguished ... a pretrial detainee’s due process rights.”

richard.serrano@latimes.com

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