US settles lawsuit alleging abuse of men detained after 9/11

The Justice Department has settled a decades-old lawsuit filed by a group of men who were rounded up by the government in the weeks after the September 11, 2001 attacks and held in a federal jail in New York in conditions the department’s own watchdog called abusive and harsh.

The settlement (PFD) announced on Tuesday calls for a $98,000 payout to be split among the six men who filed the suit and were held without charges at the Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) in Brooklyn, New York.

The men – Ahmer Iqbal Abbasi, Anser Mehmood, Benamar Benatta, Ahmed Khalifa, Saeed Hammouda, and Purna Raj Bajracharya – said they were detained in restrictive conditions and, in some cases, abused by members of the staff.

“Among other documented abuses, including beatings, forced sleep deprivation, and racial and religious slurs, many of the victims had their faces smashed into a wall where guards had pinned a t-shirt with a picture of an American flag and the words ‘These colors don’t run’,” the Center for Constitutional Rights, a legal organisation based in New York City who represents the men, said in a statement on Tuesday.

“The men were slammed against the t-shirt upon their entrance to MDC and told ‘welcome to America’,” according to the statement.

Performance artists taking part in the “Rally Against War, Racism & Islamophobia” in New York City [File: Chip East via Reuters]

The settlement closes a chapter on a troubling era in federal criminal justice when Muslim, Arab and South Asian men were rounded up in the days and weeks after the September 11 attacks.

More than 1,000 were arrested in sweeps across the New York metropolitan area and nationwide. Most were charged only with overstaying visas and deported back to their home countries. But before that happened, many were held in detention for months, with little outside contact, especially with their families.

They were, according to the 9/11 Commission report, arrested as “special interest” detainees. Immigration hearings were closed, detainee communication was limited, and bond was denied until the detainees were cleared of “terrorism” connections. Identities were kept secret.

“I am glad that the case is coming to an end after two decades of litigation. However, it is a bittersweet conclusion for me,” said Benamar Benatta, one of the detainees and a plaintiff in the case, according to the Center for Constitutional Rights press release.

“I don’t believe justice is properly served, considering the detrimental consequences the defendants’ actions have had on my life,” he said.

“I can’t help but feel let down by the whole judicial system – federal courts had the opportunity to remedy the situation but chose not to intervene, and, by doing so, they left the door open for future mistreatment and abuse to take place without any ramifications.”

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The Justice Department did not admit guilt in the settlement, but each of the men received a letter from the director of the Bureau of Prisons acknowledging they were “held in excessively restrictive and unduly harsh conditions” [File: Mark Lennihan/AP]

The settlement is somewhat unusual because federal courts at nearly every level, including the Supreme Court, had thrown out large chunks of the lawsuit. A federal district court judge threw out the remaining part of the suit last year. Though the plaintiffs filed an appeal, there had been little action in the case for months.

Though the Justice Department does not admit guilt as part of the settlement agreement, Bureau of Prisons Director Michael Carvajal wrote a letter to each of the men saying the Justice Department had determined they were “held in excessively restrictive and unduly harsh conditions of confinement and a number of individuals were physically and verbally abused by certain MDC officers”.

The lawsuit originally sought accountability from high-level members of the George W Bush administration, and a settlement was reached in 2008 with the original five plaintiffs. Others were added.

“I don’t know that the director of the Bureau of Prisons has ever signed a letter of this nature before to individual clients, so that is unique,” said Rachel Meeropol, senior staff lawyer with the Center for Constitutional Rights.

Meeropol called the court battle a failure of the justice system, pointing to the limitations on claims against federal officials.

The Justice Department did not immediately comment.

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