Ill Treatment On Our Shores


On October 24, Muhammed Butt died of a heart attack at the Hudson County Correctional Center in Kearny, New Jersey. Butt, a Pakistani national, was detained on September 19 by the FBI as a suspect connected with the September 11 attacks. He was then transferred to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), which charged him with a visa violation.

The New Jersey state medical examiner conducted a preliminary autopsy that showed Butt “died of natural causes related to a heart ailment,” Emily Hornaday, a spokesperson for the state Division of Criminal Justice, told The Washington Post. On October 1, reported The Nation, “Butt underwent a routine physical. His blood pressure and medical findings were normal.” However, the dentist prescribed a five-day regimen of antibiotics for gingivitis. “That’s all he complained about,” county spokesman Jacob De Lemos told The Washington Post.

Butt’s cell mate at the Hudson County facility tells a different story. On January 27, César Muñoz and Allyson Collins of Human Rights Watch visited the Elizabeth Detention Center in New Jersey. Both say they met with the cell mate, whose name the group is not releasing. Muñoz says he is concerned the prisoner could suffer retribution for speaking out.

Collins and Muñoz say the cell mate told them Butt’s collapse was anything but sudden. “Even days before, he wasn’t feeling well,” relays Collins, associate director of Human Rights Watch’s U.S. program.

“What the roommate told us was he helped Butt fill out request forms” for medical attention, says Muñoz, a Bloomberg Fellow with the group. “He told us Butt filled out five or six.” Butt’s written requests began about ten days before his death, Muñoz was told. “He would fill out one and wait two days. When there was no answer, he’d fill out another one,” Muñoz says, paraphrasing the cell mate. Butt “never got any answer.”

On the day he died, “at around 6 o’clock [a.m.], Butt said he was feeling pain,” continues Muñoz. “He banged on the door for five or ten minutes.” Getting no response, “Butt went back to sleep. He never woke up.” The cell mate, say both human-rights advocates, found Butt later that morning.

The INS denies the claims. “We have absolutely no information to substantiate any of the allegations being propagated by Human Rights Watch,” says Kerry Gill, an INS public affairs officer in Newark. “This is the first we are hearing allegations like that.”

The allegations of mistreatment are not confined to Butt’s case. Many others who were rounded up on orders of Attorney General John Ashcroft after September 11 claim to have been beaten, locked in solitary confinement, injected with substances against their will, or denied blankets, food, and toilet paper. Their allegations are generating media attention and prompting human rights organizations to demand that the U.S. government treat the detainees in a manner that conforms to international law.

In November, Amnesty International sent Ashcroft a document entitled “Memorandum to the U.S. Attorney General–Amnesty International’s Concerns Relating to the Post 11 September Investigations.” Drawing on numerous interviews with detainees and their lawyers, the organization expressed concern “that many of those detained during the 11 September sweeps are held in harsh conditions, some of which may violate international standards for humane treatment.” The memorandum cites “allegations of physical and verbal abuse of detainees by guards, and failure to protect detainees from abuses by other inmates,” as well as “reports suggesting that immigration detainees arrested after 11 September are being subjected to more punitive conditions than before in some facilities” and “reports that people of Muslim or Middle-Eastern origin are treated more harshly than other in-mates.”

Traci Billingsley, spokes-person for the United States Bureau of Prisons, says she doesn’t “have any public information on any individual detainee.” But she denies that any prisoner in a federal institution has been mistreated. “All inmates are treated in a fair, impartial manner and are treated in a humane way,” she says.

Russ Bergeron is the chief press officer for the INS. Regarding claims that some detainees at INS facilities were not fed during interrogations, Bergeron says such events are “the exception rather than the rule” and that “the policy of Immigration and those facilities is not to withhold meals.”

In response to allegations that INS detainees were held in isolation, Bergeron says, “I don’t even see that as an allegation.” Isolation, he says, “is an appropriate and recognized process in a detention environment, especially if you have an individual who is a subject of an ongoing criminal investigation, and all these individuals are, or were at some point in time, the subject of a terrorist investigation.” The INS adds that it is against policy to deny blankets.

County jails also dispute the complaints against them.

Michael J. Wildes used to be a federal prosecutor. He now represents five Israeli detainees who were stopped near the George Washington Bridge shortly after the attacks of September 11. According to Wildes, they were “caught horsing around with the backdrop of the World Trade Center behind them.”

One of the five, Oded Ellner, alleges that he was injected with “a series of shots” at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn. “He thought it was under the guise of stopping sexually transmitted diseases,” says Wildes. “He didn’t know what substance was being injected into him.”

Ellner is now in Israel. He declined to talk in detail about his allegations. “I can’t do an interview on what happened to me in the jail because I don’t want to remember what happened to me in the jail,” he says. “All I want now is a peaceful life.”

Wildes’s other clients allege being “beaten up by INS guards, and left by the guards to be beaten up” by other inmates, he says. “It’s unconscionable” that the government is punishing innocent people for something it “allowed to happen” by not keeping good enough track of suspected terrorists living in the United States.

And he has a warning for the United States. “As we respond to terrorists, I think it’s important we respond with measure and not in the manner of those who want to hurt the U.S. We must temper our response with justice,” says Wildes, “or put in jeopardy that which we’re trying to protect.”

Steven Gordon, a New York-based attorney, is a member of the firm the five Israelis retained. (Wildes is of counsel to that firm.) Gordon says that the five detainees “were in solitary for two months.” Two of the men suffered beatings at the hands of guards, he says. One was Omer Marmari. “Guards took him out of the cell he was in and put him in one that didn’t have the video camera,” Gordon says. Then they “moved his body across the box springs, and his legs got all cut up.”

Another detainee, Sivan Kurzberg, was also beaten up, says Gordon. Guards hit Kurzberg “about the head and body and pushed his face up against the wall for no apparent reason,” Gordon says.

All five have been deported and are now in Israel.

On February 2, Federal District Court Judge Shira A. Scheindlin of Manhattan ordered a hearing into allegations that federal agents violated the rights of Jordanian citizen Osama Awadallah. The allegations “suggest that he may have been the victim of coercion and intimidation,” wrote Scheindlin. News reports said the alleged mistreatment might be enough to justify dismissal of the charge of perjury against Awadallah. A student at Grossmont College in El Cajon, California, Awadallah had denied being a casual acquaintance of one of the September 11 hijackers, something he later contradicted. The perjury charge could lead to a ten-year prison sentence.

According to the pretrial motion that Awadallah’s attorney, Jesse Berman, filed on December 3, Awadallah “was not advised of any rights, not Miranda rights, not the right to refuse to consent to searches of his home, not the right to refuse to consent to searches of his automobiles, not his right to speak with the Jordanian consulate. Defendant was twenty-one years old and had never been arrested. There was no Arabic interpreter.”

At the San Diego Metropolitan Correctional Center, the court filings say, the mistreatment only got worse. “Defendant, who is an observant Muslim, was not allowed to have a Koran. For five days, he was denied Muslim halal food [which conforms to specific dietary laws]. He was not allowed a shower for the first three or four days, and was not allowed to have toilet paper or soap for the first two days. For two days, his cell floor was flooded with water, preventing him from kneeling and praying.”

On October 1, Awadallah was flown to New York, where he entered Manhattan’s Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC). During his time there, a guard “pushed defendant, who was handcuffed, into a wall and into a door,” the complaint says. “Defendant’s hand started bleeding. The guard also kicked defendant’s leg shackles and pulled defendant’s head by the hair to make defendant face an American flag.”

The document says Awadallah also suffered harm at the hands of U.S. Marshals, who, while transporting him to court, allegedly “pinched his upper arms while his hands were cuffed behind his back and attached to his feet. They kicked his feet in an elevator. Defendant was bleeding from his left foot and suffered black-and-blue marks on his arms. A supervisor marshal threatened to kill him.”

According to court documents filed by Mary Jo White, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, “The Government does not condone or lightly dismiss allegations of mistreatment of prisoners by prison authorities. . . . The Bureau of Prisons addressed the defendant’s claims, and acknowledged that the defendant was likely bruised during his escort by staff, but found that none of his injuries indicated that he was assaulted or physically abused.”

Awadallah was released on December 13. He spent his entire ten-week detention in solitary confinement, says Berman, who characterizes some of what his client suffered as “torture.” “He’s a person who’s twenty-one years old, never in trouble in his life,” says Berman. “He had never experienced being locked up before, so it was very hard.”

There are plenty of other cases. Shakir Baloch, a medical doctor and a Canadian citizen originally from Pakistan, was held for two months in solitary confinement in a high security unit at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, according to his lawyer, Joel Kupferman, of the National Lawyers Guild, and MacDonald Scott, the membership coordinator for the organization. For two weeks, both advocates claim, he was denied toilet paper. He also says that he is not being served halal food.

Scott, who is also an activist with the Coalition for the Human Rights of Immigrants, says when Baloch first entered the center, guards pushed him “from corner to corner of the cell. They were throwing him back and forth from wall to wall.”

One of Baloch’s big complaints, his representatives say, is the fact that the lights in his wing stay on twenty-four hours a day, which Baloch says interferes with his sleep and is psychologically damaging.

Kareem Shora, a member of the legal department at the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, heard from the wife of a detainee who had called her from the Mecklenburg County Jail in Charlotte, North Carolina. He told her that “all immigration detainees from Arab countries being held for the INS by the facility were rounded up and placed in a separate room. The detainees were then completely stripped of their clothes before what he described as ‘cold air’ was blown onto them,” Shora recounts.

The Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office acknowledges that other people at the facility have heard the same allegation but denies it has any validity. “That’s just a rumor,” says Julia Rush, director of communications. “We don’t treat our inmates like that.”

Waheed Khalid is the vice president of HELP (the Human Rights Education and Law Project), an organization formed in the wake of September 11 to educate the public and provide legal assistance to detainees. “We’ve been monitoring the detainees in New Jersey, mostly in Passaic and Hudson Counties and Middlesex,” he says. “Almost everybody said they were taken to 26 Federal Plaza in New York City–the INS building, the federal building there. The place where they were kept was very, very cold. Everybody said it was extremely cold. They could not even sleep for a moment. When they asked for blankets, they were refused.”

Khalid says he heard allegations of denials of blankets from “at least two dozen” people.

Another detainee, a forty-one-year-old small business owner from Newburyport, Massachusetts, asks that his name not be used because he is in the process of applying for his green card. He claims that when he was interrogated (the day “that I went through Hell”), he did not have access to food for more than twenty-four hours. On Thursday, November 29, INS agents “came over here at 5:30 in the morning, asked me to come” with them. He cooperated, and, he says, the agents took him to the JFK federal building in Boston. There, both the INS and the FBI asked him questions, he says, and he was not fed until the following morning. He gives a charitable interpretation of that event, saying simply, “I believe someone forgot to bring food.”

For this particular detainee, the hazards of lockup seemed to decrease as time went on. “At the beginning, when I got in [to the Intake Service Center in Cranston, Rhode Island], I didn’t have any blankets. I had two sheets and a towel.” After two weeks and requests from his attorney, however, he got both blankets and a pillow. “I was lucky,” he says, noting that others didn’t have pillows.

He was released after a month in detention.

His girlfriend (who also asked that her name not be used, since she is mentioned in his green card petition) is less charitable in her analysis of the federal government’s behavior.

“This is a man that wouldn’t hurt a flea,” she says. “He was exiled from Iran when he was twelve. He came from a very prominent family. When the Ayatollah took over, that was it.” She notes that her boyfriend has not married during his time in the United States, though he could easily have done so to get citizenship. “He did everything right. And still they’re nailing him. These aren’t scumbag people they’re picking up. They’re highly educated people, and they love this country. They’re an asset to this country. If this were going on in another country and these were American citizens, they would be considered hostages.”

Noting that her boyfriend’s business suffered during his detention, she is furious with the way the government’s behavior, and some of the media’s response, has led people to believe that the detainees are all dangerous. “The way the media portrays it, these are potential terrorists,” she says. “It’s slander. Who is going to associate with my boyfriend if they know this? There are so many repercussions for these guys that it’s not funny. It’s a disgrace to our country.”

Some of the detainees claim that other inmates beat them up. They also raise questions about the complicity of the guards charged with their care.

Uzi Bohadana found trouble waiting for him at the Madison County Jail in Canton, Mississippi. Bohadana, a twenty-four-year-old Israeli citizen who lives in Hollywood, Florida, was arrested on September 14, says his attorney, L. Patricia Ice. “INS alleged he was working for wages without authorization,” she says.

Bohadana says he was driving a truck at the time. The FBI picked him up at a Canton storage facility “on an allegation that I’m a suspect of the bombing,” he says. The Bureau then transferred Bohadana to the Madison County Jail for the weekend.

At the jail, says Ice, Bohadana was put in a cell with inmates who were there on criminal charges.

“After two days, [the other inmates] decide I’m a terrorist, for some reason,” says Bohadana. He ended up with a broken jaw and seven stitches on the right eye, he says. “I was hospitalized for two days to make the surgery.” Ice says Bohadana had to have his jaw wired.

Bohadana believes he may have been set up for the beating. “I don’t know who told them because no one knew that except the guards. Figure it out by yourself,” he says. Before the attack, a guard had been constantly on duty outside the cell, says Ice. “The guard disappeared for an hour during the attack,” she says. “It was one hour before the guard found him.”

The Madison County Jail referred my request for comment to their lawyer, who did not return repeated calls.

Hasnain Javed landed in the Stone County Correctional Facility in Wiggins, Mississippi. “He is nineteen years old,” says Mary Howell, his attorney. According to Howell, on September 19, Javed was “on his way back to New York. He had been visiting family in Houston.” When the bus stopped in Mobile and border patrol agents checked out the riders, Javed was arrested for having records that were out of date.

At the Stone County Correctional Facility, says Howell, the other prisoners somehow learned he was Pakistani. Javed, she says, didn’t tell them. The inmates “began to call him bin Laden and started to push him around,” says Howell. Through an intercom, Javed made contact with a guard. Howell says he cried and begged for help. “They proceeded to beat him, they stripped him naked.” Javed ended up with a chipped tooth, broken ribs, and a ruptured eardrum, Howell says.

“I visited him on Friday [September 21]. His tongue was swollen to about twice the size of a normal tongue. It was blue and had abrasions.” That day, she claims, was the first time Javed received an offer to see a doctor.

Officials at the Stone County Correctional Facility dispute the allegations. “He got into an altercation with the other inmates,” says Sheriff Mike Ballard. In the version Ballard tells, Javed brought the beating on himself. “He made derogatory remarks about the United States. I’ll say exactly what he said: ‘I’m glad the World Trade Center got bombed.’ ” Then the other inmates began chasing him, claims Ballard.

Ballard also says that Javed was “the first one to pass any blows. He picked up a broom handle and hit one of the guys who was chasing him.” Ballard claims “it was less than five minutes before it was broken up” and that Javed was promptly “given medical attention.”

Ballard says investigations by both the correctional facility and the FBI bear out this version of events.

The FBI says the case is still under investigation.

The Bush Administration has not been eager to let lawyers or human rights activists have access to inmates and ascertain the conditions of their treatment. For months, it blocked the requests of Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International to visit and interview government detainees. According to a December 14 press release, Human Rights Watch “requested permission to visit the facilities because it was concerned by reports of inappropriate treatment and infringement on detainees’ rights. . . . Interviews with former detainees and with attorneys representing detainees have reinforced those concerns.”

The INS district director in Newark, New Jersey, informed Human Rights Watch that it would not be allowed access to the Hudson County Correctional Center because of the “extraordinary” circumstances. In a turnaround, the INS announced on January 30 that monitoring groups would be allowed access to the New Jersey facilities, and several, including both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, visited two detention centers on February 6.

As a result of that visit, “we’ve received several allegations of verbal and physical abuse by guards at Passaic,” says Angela Wright, the organization’s USA researcher. Wright mentions one detainee “who said he was hit and another who said he was slammed against a wall.” She also says detainees at Passaic made allegations “that dogs have been used to intimidate” them. The INS’s Gill says the allegations are too broad to comment on.

The U.S. Bureau of Prisons has allowed neither Human Rights Watch nor Amnesty International to visit the New York City detention centers. “Recent events require that MDC Brooklyn focus on operating in a manner that is as safe, secure, and orderly as possible,” says a January 31 letter from Warden Dennis W. Hasty to Rachel Ward, Amnesty International USA’s researcher on the September 11 probe. “Unfortunately, this has required minimizing activities not critical to the day-to-day operations of the institution. Therefore, I must deny your request at this time.”

Ward says the lack of access to the Metropolitan Detention Center worries the organization, since it has “serious concerns” about treatment there. “They really ought to open it to scrutiny,” she says.

Not only is the government obstructing investigations into the conditions of living detainees, it is also busy denying requests for more information about the circumstances surrounding the death of Pakistani citizen Muhammed Butt.

Six days after Butt died, Human Rights Watch wrote to the government, asking for details about his treatment and the cause of his death. According to Allyson Collins, the organization sought “information about the medical screening he received when he arrived” and “any conflicts of any kind with other detainees.” The group wanted to know if he was a troublemaker whom the prison officials might have been tempted to neglect. Human Rights Watch also asked for a copy of his autopsy, information on any medications he was taking when he arrived, any complaints or requests for help he made while he was detained, what dental work he had done, and whether he had seen a doctor during his detention.

The INS response, if you can call it that, came on December 6. The INS declined to provide any information regarding Muhammed Butt, “due to laws relating to privacy.” And it denied it is withholding information on his death.

The letter, which came from INS headquarters in Washington, D.C., gets more bizarre when it suggests the group contact the Hudson County INS office for any further information concerning Butt. “When you contact the District Director, please be sure to have written consent from Mr. Butt stating that the office is able to release information concerning his case to you,” it advises. “This statement should contain his name and your name and his alien number along with his written signature.”

“I am perplexed by the INS’s suggestion that we obtain the signature of a man who has died,” responded Collins. “The death of a detainee is a very serious matter, and we urge the U.S. government to investigate it fully.”

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