After the attacks in the U.S. on September 11, American law enforcement officials searching for terrorists detained an estimated 1,200 South Asian and Middle Eastern foreign nationals living in the United States.
Authorities have refused to release their names, the charges against them, or the exact number of those held.
Bush administration officials say the detentions are designed to uncover and prevent future acts of terrorism by al-Qaida terrorists. But they have sparked strong criticism in some quarters, and lawsuits challenging the secrecy. Carolyn Weaver has the profile of one man who was caught in the dragnet.
Every Saturday in New York City, there’s a protest outside the Brooklyn Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) where some of the men arrested since September 11 are being held. Bobby Khan is usually there. Since 9-11, the Pakistani-born financial advisor has headed a project dedicated to helping the families of men who’ve been arrested in a dragnet meant to round up those who might be linked to terrorism.
“Especially from this neighborhood, which is Coney Island Avenue, I would say 70 to 80 people have been detained," he said. "We keep asking to release the names and their charges, and so far they haven’t.”
Many of those arrested have been held for months, like Anser Mehmood, from Pakistan. Mr. Mehmood was arrested on October 3, initially suspected because he was a truck driver with a license to carry hazardous materials, at a time when it was feared that truck bombs might be used in a second wave of terrorist attacks by al-Qaida sleeper agents in the United States. Anser Mehmood was not a terrorist, it turned out. But he had overstayed his visa. And he had falsified a social security card in order to work.
“We come here because of the political problem in Pakistan. I work very hard in this country," said Mr. Mehmood. "By the help of Allah and a lot of American people who help me, I achieve the American dream, I have my own house, I own my own truck, it’s a trucking business, I’m paying taxes, kids are going to very good school, good neighborhood, things are very quiet with me. One morning I wake up and everything is gone.”
In an interview at an INS prison, Mr. Mehmood said that FBI and INS investigators who came to his home treated him politely. But he added that guards at the MDC beat him and other detainees when they arrived in shackles.
“They pull us on the ground," he recalled, "and then pick us up and throw us on the wall, press me hard against the wall, and then tell me, ‘Just follow the orders, otherwise you’ll be dead.’ Then they took me to the Special Housing Unit, the 9th floor in the MDC, and put me in a cell. "And after that nobody come to me for four months and two days, ask me any questions about anything, no FBI, no INS, nothing.”
From October to April, Anser Mehmood was confined to a high-security cell in the Brooklyn MDC—allowed one phone call a month. At one point, he said, the unit’s windows were painted so prisoners could not see outside.
“I asked an officer why my window was painted after two months, ‘I feel like I’m in a grave now,’" said Mr. Mehmood. "And he gave me an answer that, ‘This is part of your punishment.’”
A Federal Bureau of Prisons spokeswoman says the agency has found no evidence to corroborate detainees’ claims of abuse. In an e-mail, she said the bureau would not comment on physical features at its facilities for security reasons. The Justice Department says its dragnet measures were necessary to fully investigate the September 11 terrorist attacks, and to prevent future terrorism. In December, Attorney General John Ashcroft testified before Congress.
“Terrorist operatives infiltrate our communities, plotting, planning, waiting to kill again," he declared. "They enjoy the benefits of our free society, even as they commit themselves to our destruction. Our efforts have been crafted carefully to avoid infringing on constitutional rights, while saving American lives. All persons being detained have the right to contact their lawyers and their families. Our respect for their privacy and concern for saving lives motivates us not to publicize the names of those detained.”
But a lawsuit filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights and an Amnesty International report allege that many detainees have been seriously mistreated, held in isolation, physically and verbally abused, or denied the right to counsel.
William Schultze of Amnesty International said, "Most of these people were cleared long ago of any involvement with the September 11 attacks, yet they continue to languish in facilities in which their most basic rights are violated. The government’s treatment of these individuals is simply unacceptable and is a violation of international law.”
The Justice Department declined to comment, but testifying before Congress last December, Attorney General John Ashcroft held up a seized al-Qaida training manual.
“They are instructed to exploit our judicial process for the success of their operations," he said. "Imprisoned terrorists are instructed in this manual to concoct stories of torture and mistreatment at the hands of our officials. They are directed to take advantage of any contact with the outside world.”
Opinion polls show most Americans support the Justice Department. “It’s too bad, but it’s probably necessary," said a woman on the street. "I mean, I apologize to them in advance, but if that’s what we have to do to be safe, I guess that’s what we have to do.”
A man shares her opinion: “Well, everybody should be free and things, but for something of this magnitude to happen, I feel they should be detained if we need to get information to prevent things like this happening again," he said. "Other than that, I think they should be treated fairly, they shouldn’t be beaten and abused.”
But of hundreds of detainees, only one has been publicly charged with terrorism: Zacarias Moussaoui, who was already in prison on September 11. Anser Mehmood accepted a deportation order in December. But he remained locked up until May 10.
“My life changed in those days," he recalled. "I start reading Koran, praying, fasting, and getting strength and faith from almighty Allah, that this all comes from Allah and I have to bear it, and the time will come when they know the truth and let me out.”
Mr. Mehmood said he is not angry about his long detention, though he thinks it was unjust. But he worries that the fear of terrorism will damage American ideals, what he calls “Lincoln’s America.”
“Just for the system and justice, that’s what Lincoln’s America is all about," he explained. "And I hope this temporary thing doesn’t affect the principal teachings, I hope. That we don’t see people like me in jail for seven months; I hope it never happens again. That’s what Lincoln’s America is about.”
Anser Mehmood was deported in May to Pakistan, where his wife and children had already returned. Meanwhile, the ongoing secret detentions and deportation hearings of several hundred other non-citizens will continue to be argued in American courts.