3 in Sept. 11 Probe Say They Were Abused in Top Security
by Steve Fainaru, Washington Post
NEW YORK - Inside the Special Housing Unit of the Metropolitan Detention
Center in Brooklyn, dozens of detainees held for months in connection with
the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks have been confined to their cells nearly
hours a day.
The lights are always on, making it difficult to sleep. The prisoners
subject to body cavity searches after each meeting with their attorneys.
They are transported in shackles, handcuffs and waist chains. In some cases,
the detainees have been subject to harassment by prison guards and rough
treatment that has left them bloodied.
The conditions were described by three detainees recently released from
the Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) who offered a rare glimpse of life
inside the federal prison's maximum security unit, supposedly reserved for
some of the most important suspects in the government's terrorism
The facility, run by the Bureau of Prisons, has come under scrutiny
recently because the Justice Department's Office of Inspector General is
conducting a "review" to determine whether authorities violated the civil
rights of detainees held at MDC and another facility, the Passaic County
Jail in Paterson, N.J.
Immigration lawyers and advocates have lodged repeated allegations of
civil rights violations involving the detainees at MDC, who over time have
numbered perhaps several dozen of the more than 1,200 people picked up in
the government's dragnet after Sept. 11.
The detentions are part of a Justice Department strategy to disrupt
terrorism using any legal means available. However, as months have passed,
hundreds of detainees, most of Arab and South Asian descent, have been
charged only with immigration violations and have been released or deported,
or have left the country voluntarily.
The investigation has also led to growing complaints about civil
liberties violations. A legal group, the Center for Constitutional Rights,
announced today that it planned to file a class action lawsuit Wednesday
against Attorney General John D. Ashcroft, other senior federal officials
and unnamed MDC corrections officers who allegedly committed abuses against
"These are people who want to be heard, and what they want heard is that
American democracy has failed them," said William Goodman, legal director
for the Center for Constitutional Rights. "The main thing they want
understood is that they have identified a policy on the part of the American
government to look at Muslim males and call them terrorists whether they
were or not, and in almost every circumstance, they were not."
Although the Justice Department has conducted its investigation in total
secrecy, the government has announced no terrorism-related charges against
any of those held under maximum security conditions at MDC. In fact, it
unclear why the three detainees who spoke to The Washington Post or others
at MDC had been placed in the Special Housing Unit rather than other
facilities where hundreds of detainees connected to the investigation have
been kept in conditions that are far less restrictive.
Officials with the Bureau of Prisons, the Immigration and Naturalization
Service and the Justice Department declined to comment on specific cases.
One U.S. official said the decisions on where and how detainees would be
confined were made at "the highest levels of the Justice Department" and
were evaluated case by case.
The decisions, the official said, depended on several issues, including
the nature of the evidence that had been gathered, available space in the
detention facilities and whether the detainee presented a flight or safety
risk. One U.S. official noted that two years ago at another federal
facility, the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan, an alleged
associate of Osama bin Laden stabbed a guard in the eye with a sharpened
comb, leaving the victim in a coma.
Anser Mehmood, 42, a Pakistani immigrant, said that shortly after his
arrival at MDC, prison guards shoved his face into the wall, bloodying his
lip, and threatened to kill him if he spoke.
After he was strip-searched, Mehmood said, a guard asked him: "Do you
know why you're here?"
"Yes. I overstayed my visa," Mehmood said he replied.
"No," the guard told him. "You are a World Trade Center suspect."
Authorities later provided an affidavit from an FBI agent stating that
Mehmood should be held because of evidence gathered in the investigation,
including the fact that Mehmood, a truck driver, had canceled a delivery
Washington after the Sept. 11 attacks, and that a teacher of Mehmood's son
had once informed a supervisor that Mehmood's son stated there was plutonium
at his residence. Mehmood said the trip had actually been canceled by a
client and that, in fact, police came to his home last year after his son
reported seeing bullets, not plutonium, and left after discovering harmless
cylindrical pieces of brass in his basement.
Mehmood said he was held for 123 days in the Special Housing Unit before
being cleared by the FBI and moved into the general population, a transition
he described as "going from hell to heaven. When I came out, it was like
was a human being again."
On April 4, he was transferred from MDC to Passaic County Jail to await
deportation after a judge sentenced him to time served for overstaying his
visa and purchasing a fake Social Security card that he used to gain
Syed Amjad Jaffri, 38, a Pakistani immigrant, said last week that he
still not certain why he was sent to MDC after investigators arrived at
Bronx apartment in late September. Jaffri, who said he held Canadian
residency status and was close to obtaining Canadian citizenship, admitted
that he had been working in the New York area at the time, selling surgical
and dental supplies in violation of his tourist visa.
He said that while searching his apartment, investigators found a stun
gun that belonged to one of his landlord's sons and materials for a home
course in private investigation that he had ordered via a television
Jaffri said he was brought to MDC in a motorcade that included police
cars with sirens blaring. With shackles around his ankles and his hands
cuffed to a heavy chain around his waist, Jaffri said, he was seized by
guards and thrown face first into a wall. The impact, he said, bloodied
mouth and loosened his teeth.
On April 1, Jaffri was released and deported to Canada, where he was
interviewed. Displaying the teeth he said were loosened by the attack,
Jaffri said that prison authorities denied his requests to see a dentist
receive a painkiller.
Daniel Dunne, a spokesman for the Bureau of Prisons, referred questions
about cases related to the terror investigation to the Justice Department.
But he said that the Bureau of Prisons investigated all allegations of staff
Jaffri said he was placed alone in one of the small cells that prison
officials referred to as "holes." The cell had one window that had been
painted over, blocking the view outside. He received his meals through a
slot in the door. He said for the first month and a half he was not allowed
to shave and was given "two squares" of toilet paper a day.
Jaffri said the lights in his cell were on constantly, making it
difficult to sleep. At night, he said, alarms went off frequently, waking
the detainees, and guards often dragged heavy chains across the door.
Shakir Ali Baloch, 39, a Canadian citizen and a native of Pakistan,
offered a similar description of life inside the Special Housing Unit.
Baloch said he was taken into custody by FBI and INS officials in late
September while attending classes in Queens to gain his taxi license.
Baloch said he had entered the country illegally from Canada and had
illegally purchased a fake Social Security card to acquire a driver's
license. But he said he is still unsure why authorities decided to put him
He said he suspects it had something to do with a paperback military
novel investigators found while searching his apartment. The novel, he said,
featured an advertisement on the back for another book and had a photograph
of Osama bin Laden.
"I think the book was the biggest reason," Baloch said during an
interview this week inside the Passaic County Jail, where he was transferred
after months at MDC. Baloch was deported to Canada one day after the
Baloch said he was kept in solitary confinement until Feb. 14, when he
was moved into the general population at MDC. There, he had access to
television, books and newspapers and was allowed to make phone calls.
Asked whether he was angry about the way he had been treated, Baloch
said: "No, I'm not angry. I just want to go home."