Civil Rights Group Sues Ashcroft

Civil rights attorneys have filed a class action lawsuit against U.S. Attoney General John Ashcroft seeking punitive damages for the abuses suffered by Middle Eastern men detained after Sept. 11.

Filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights on Wednesday, the brief claims, "Instead of being presumed innocent until proven guilty, the post-9/11 detainees have been presumed guilty of terrorism until proven innocent to the satisfaction of law enforcement authorities." It accuses defendants John Ashcroft and other senior U.S. officials of "intentionally or recklessly" violating the constitutional rights of the plaintiffs Ibrahim Turkmen, Asif-ur-Rehman Saffi, and Syed Amjad Ali Jaffri.

The men were held in prison without due process for months for minor immigration violations. Asif-Ur-Rehman Saffi was detained by the Immigration and Naturalization Service on Sept. 30, 2001 for working in the United States on a tourist visa. Like his fellow plaintiffs, Saffi agreed to leave the country immediately as ordered by the immigration courts -- the normal procedure in such cases. But INS refused to allow him to return to France and instead held him in custody for nearly five months, during which time he was repeatedly interrogated, strip-searched and severely beaten.

"(D)etainees were forced to sleep with a light on in their cells for 24 hours and their sleep was constantly interrupted. They were cavity strip-searched every time they had to leave their cell in manacles," CCR lawyer Barbara Olshanky said.

In the brief filed by CCR, Saffi said that guards bent his thumbs back, pushed him and kicked him in the face when he first arrived at the detention center. Syed Amjad Ali Jaffri -- who was held for four months after an immigration judge ordered his deportation -- said the guards slammed his head against a wall, loosening some of his teeth.

The Center alleges these men were targeted and abused because of their ethnic origin. According to Saffi's testimony, the guards at the Brooklyn detention center constantly called him a terrorist and insulted his religion. Saffi, who was finally released in March, was never charged with a crime and nor could he be linked to any terrorist activity.

"(W)hen the Attorney General says that he is going to jail every 'terrorist' he can find, for minor infractions of the law, he means every Muslim man who is not a citizen," said CCR Legal Director Bill Goodman. Apart from Ashcroft, other defendants named in the suit include F.B.I. director Robert S. Mueller III, INS commisioner James W. Ziglar and unnamed corrections officers at the detention center who are accused of beating and abusing some detainees.

CCR lawyers say law enforcement officials are merely following the lead of Ashcroft "who has publicly ridiculed the Muslim religion and its followers and who has accused those concerned about damage to the Bill of Rights as being supporters of terrorism."

About 1,200 Muslim men were imprisoned in the initial wave of arrests made after the terror attacks. A majority were eventually charged with minor immigration violations such as overstaying a visa. According to the only information provided by the Justice Department, 327 of the original detainees were still in custody as of mid-February.

Despite lawsuits filed by groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union, Justice Department officials have declined to identify the detainees or explain why so many remain in prison. Ashcroft instead issued a new regulation Thursday forbidding non-federal authorities from releasing information about immigration detainees held in state and local facilities.

The regulation is an attempt to negate a March 27 New Jersey state court ruling that grants the ACLU access to records of INS detainees. In her ruling -- the first in the nation concerning detainees held since Sept. 11 -- New Jersey Superior Court Judge Arthur DÂ’Italia called secret arrests "odious to a democracy."

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