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May 3, 2004 New York Times By NINA BERNSTEIN
Before the World Trade Center attack, Javaid Iqbal was a Pakistani immigrant proud to be known as "the cable guy" to customers on Long Island, where he had lived for a decade and married an American. Ehab Elmaghraby, an Egyptian, had a weekend flea market stand at Aqueduct Raceway and a restaurant near Times Square where friendly police officers would joke, "Where's my shish kebab?"
But within weeks of Sept. 11, 2001, both had been picked up by federal agents in an anti-terror sweep. For 23 hours a day, they were locked in solitary confinement in the harsh maximum-security unit of a federal detention center in Brooklyn - the one cited by the Justice Department's inspector general last year for widespread physical abuse of its detainees.
The inspector general mentioned no specific names and cases, but now, in a federal lawsuit to be filed today and in telephone interviews from Pakistan and Egypt, the former cable technician and the former restaurateur have provided the most detailed personal accounts yet of the unit's brutality and the first to accuse specific corrections officers and wardens of abuse. The accusations are similar to those now being made against military officers guarding prisoners in Iraq.
The lawsuit charges that the men were repeatedly slammed into walls and dragged across the floor while shackled and manacled, kicked and punched until they bled, cursed as "terrorists" and "Muslim bastards," and subjected to multiple unnecessary body-cavity searches, including one during which correction officers inserted a flashlight into Mr. Elmaghraby's rectum, making him bleed.
At that point, the papers charge, he was confined without blankets, mattress or toilet paper to a tiny cell kept lighted 24 hours a day, and was denied adequate medical care or communication with his public defender. He said his attempts to pray or sleep were disrupted by guards banging on his door.
"I was in life and I went to hell," Mr. Elmaghraby, 37, said in the interview. He spent almost a year in the special unit of the Metropolitan Detention Center, where the detention and treatment of hundreds of Muslim immigrants have since become the focus of concerns about the constitutionality of the Justice Department's counterterrorism offensive.
Mr. Elmaghraby was picked up on Sept. 30, 2001, in his apartment in Maspeth, Queens, when federal agents were investigating his Muslim landlord, apparently because years earlier the landlord had applied for pilot training. Mr. Iqbal was arrested in his Long Island apartment on Nov. 2 by agents who were apparently following a tip about false identification cards. In his apartment they found a Time magazine showing the trade towers in flames and paperwork showing that he had been in Lower Manhattan on Sept. 11, picking up a work permit from immigration services. He was detained for nine months before the F.B.I. cleared him of any terrorist link.
Mr. Elmaghraby and Mr. Iqbal eventually pleaded guilty to minor federal criminal charges unrelated to terrorism - Mr. Elmaghraby to credit card fraud, Mr. Iqbal to having false papers and bogus checks - but they maintain now that they did so only to escape the abuse. They were deported after serving prison terms.
A spokeswoman for the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Traci Billingsley, said she could not comment on their lawsuit, which names as defendants Attorney General John Ashcroft; Kathleen Hawk Sawyer, the former head of the Bureau of Prisons; Michael Zenk, the warden of the detention center; more than a dozen correction officers and supervisors; and a jail doctor.
Ms. Billingsley added that the bureau recently began an investigation to follow up evidence compiled by the inspector general against as many as 20 staff members and was now "trying to build a case that will withstand scrutiny in an administrative hearing or judicial proceeding."
Though the lawsuit is not being filed as a class action, it is about more than redress for the mistreatment of two individuals singled out because of their race, religion and national origin, said Alexander Reinert, a lawyer for Koob & Magoolaghan, which joined with the Urban Justice Center, an advocacy organization, to prepare the papers.
"The case is about ensuring that in times of crisis we stand by the principles that are most important to our country, and those are principles of fairness and equality embodied in the Constitution," he said.
Mr. Iqbal, 37, who lost 40 pounds in detention, said he suffers from chronic digestive problems, pain and depression and is still struggling to reconcile the two sides of America he experienced.
In a telephone interview from Faisalabad, Pakistan, he spoke wistfully of his early, around-the-clock jobs as a 7-Eleven clerk and as a gas station attendant in Huntington, N.Y., where customers brought him Thanksgiving dinner and Christmas gifts. But he is so haunted by memories of the terror, pain and humiliation that the federal officers inflicted on him, he said, that he starts to shake at the sight of his own brother, a policeman, in uniform.
"Before I go to prison, the America that I know is a beautiful country and Americans are such beautiful, kind, humble people," he said. "When I go to prison, I see there a different face of the United States of America."
His introduction to the nation's new detention policy was abrupt. Unlike Mr. Elmaghraby, who spent his whole detention in the maximum-security unit, Mr. Iqbal was housed with the general inmate population for the first two months after his arrest. But on the evening of Jan. 8, 2002, he was told that he had a "legal visit" in a room on another floor.
Instead of a lawyer, he found more than a dozen federal officers waiting for him. As he and the lawsuit tell it, several officers picked him up and threw him against the wall. He said he heard one ask a senior person, "He's the one?" and when the reply was affirmative, an officer pressing Mr. Iqbal's head into the wall turned it around, looked him in the face and said, "Welcome to hell, buddy."
At that, he was dragged to the floor, kicked in the stomach with steel-toed shoes and punched in the face, he said, and the officers screamed death threats and curses as they beat him up. "Then the senior person said, 'Just take him out of my sight.' "
Hatred seemed to determine the rules on the unit in ways large and small, the men said. On cold days when it rained, Mr. Iqbal was left outside for hours without jacket or shoes. When he was returned to his cell drenched, officers turned on the air-conditioning, he said. At one point, the lawsuit said, Mr. Elmaghraby was mockingly displayed naked to a female staff member.
The inspector general's report said last June that Mr. Ashcroft's policy was to hold detainees on any legal pretext until the F.B.I. cleared them, even though such clearances turned out to take months, not days, because they were given low priority. It said little effort was made to distinguish between legitimate terrorism suspects and the many people picked up by chance during the investigation.
To the plaintiffs, the unit seemed to erase their American lives. Mr. Elmaghraby says his wife, Pilar Valerio, an American citizen of Dominican background, left him after being threatened with arrest by an F.B.I. agent when she arrived at his first court hearing. Mr. Iqbal had been separated after 4½ years of marriage at the time he was detained but had three American stepchildren. The eldest, Paul Harrison, 22, said, "I never knew what happened," when contacted by a reporter. "I felt like he fell off the face of the earth."
When the inspector general's investigators interviewed corrections officers, all but one or two denied that any detainees were abused. But according to a supplemental report issued in December, investigators later recovered videotapes that showed some of the same officers engaging in abuse.
Ms. Billingsley, the Bureau of Prisons spokeswoman, said it had taken no disciplinary action while it waited for a decision about prosecution to be made by the Department of Justice's civil rights division and the United States attorney for the Eastern District of New York. "We were recently advised of the decision not to prosecute," she said.
Mr. Iqbal said he was not looking for revenge. "Then there will be no difference between them and us," he explained. "They should just apologize in front of all the people of the United States of America who love freedom and justice. And they should apologize to each of us personally."
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