Guilty Until Proven

Three 9/11 Detainees Tell Their Story

Recently, the Justice Department's inspector general released a report criticizing the unduly harsh way our government treated many of the 1,200 Muslim and Middle Eastern men who were rounded up and questioned by U.S. authorities in the months following Sept. 11.

As 60 Minutes first reported earlier this year, and the Justice Department report confirms, many of those men who were held in solitary confinement in maximum security prisons for months on end - without their families being notified, without real access to legal aid, and without being charged with a crime.

Three such detainees tell correspondent Bob Simon their stories.
Hady Omar came to the United States from Egypt three and a half years ago. He lives in Arkansas with his wife Candy, an Arkansas native, and their daughter Jasmine.

He’s never been charged with any criminal offense, but he says he was held in custody in a maximum-security prison for 73 days because he is a Muslim.

On September 12th, Omar just returned from a trip to Florida, where he was trying to start an antiques business. Minutes later, police and FBI agents pulled up in front of his house.

“They were running actually, toward me,” remembers Omar. “They had their hands on their guns.”

The agents told Omar that they just wanted to talk. He was taken into custody and grilled for more than seven hours. Then he was taken in handcuffs to the local jail and placed under arrest. He asked to see a lawyer, but he was told that he couldn’t use the phone. He says he even passed a lie detector test, but still wasn't allowed to leave.

The next morning, Omar was the talk of his town. The headline of his local paper read “Terror Strikes Home.”

His wife, Candy, says she had no idea what was going on. No one told her, for example, that her husband had been taken from the local jail, in shackles, and driven through the night to Louisiana, where he wound up in a maximum-security prison.

Before going to his cell, Omar says prison officials videotaped him as he was stripped naked and given a rectal exam in front of an audience of male and female agents.

“I don't feel like a man, you know, once they're searching me like this,” says Omar. “I don't feel like a man.”

Authorities deny that women were watching, but they don't deny that Omar spent the next two months in solitary confinement, with the lights on 24 hours a day.

“The cell was freezing. It was cold,” says Omar. “I didn’t get to change clothes for 14 days. They kept the shower very cold. No warm or hot water. Nothing.”

Omar says one federal agent told him he had been arrested because he bought a plane ticket from a computer terminal at a Kinko's in Florida -- the same Kinko's where Mohammed Atta, leader of the September 11th terrorists, had also purchased a ticket. But no one has officially told either Omar, or the lawyer he was eventually allowed to contact, why he was kept in a maximum-security prison.

“I just start feeling that I'm not going to ever get out of there,” says Omar, who ended up contemplating suicide. “Sometimes I felt that – I am dead, and this is hell for me. And, you know, this is my grave.”
The government was able to hold Omar and hundreds of other Muslim detainees by charging them not as criminals but as visa violators. The law says criminals, even murderers, must be charged with a crime quickly – usually within 48 hours – or released.

Immigration laws used to work the same way, but after 9/11, the justice department rewrote the rules so that suspected visa violators could be held in jail as long as the government wants – without any charges filed against them.

Omar, who was arrested as a suspected terrorist, was ultimately charged only with overstaying a tourist visa, even though he had married an American citizen, had a work permit, and had applied for permanent residency.

After two and a half months in custody, he was released on bond. Robert Rubin is Omar's lawyer and the legal director of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights. He says that before September 11th, it would have been unheard of to arrest someone like Omar and put him in solitary confinement.

The government may believe that extraordinary circumstances equals extraordinary treatment. But Rubin believes this certainly doesn’t justify denying Omar access to legal counsel and his wife and child, who are both U.S. citizens.

“Any concern that the United States may have had about Omar being a security risk, a terrorist threat, could have been easily resolved in a number of hours, if not days, of humanized treatment -- not the kind of dehumanizing conditions that he was subject to,” says Rubin.

With the help of Rubin, and a legal team from the firm of Morrison and Foerster, Omar has filed a lawsuit against the government, claiming that his civil rights were violated and that his treatment could be characterized as torture.

There were some 1200 guys rounded up after September 11th. What happened to all the others?

According to Rubin, an overwhelming majority of these detainees were deported, “without most of us ever even knowing who they were or what they were guilty of."

They were whisked out of the country in secret.
That's what happened to Ali Yaghi, who was born in Jordan but had been living in Albany, New York for 15 years. His wife, Shokriea, who fled Afghanistan as a child, is an American citizen. So are their three sons.

Shokriea says she wasn't worried when her husband was picked up for questioning. At least not right away.

“I knew the US justice system. You're innocent until proven guilty,” she says. “I just thought, you know, he would be questioned and just released.”

But her husband was held for 10 months in solitary confinement at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, New York. He later told his wife that "innocent until proven guilty" was not how it worked here.

Shokriea says her husband was threatened and insulted by others during his detention. But never charged with a crime.

Ali Yaghi, like Omar, was accused of overstaying his visa, even though his wife claims the government told him he would be getting his green card, his permanent residency, soon.

Shokriea never found out why the government treated her husband like a terrorist. Her husband had a lawyer, but the FBI wouldn’t say anything to him. They claimed they had secret evidence against Ali Yaghi.

Last June, the U.S. government deported Ali Yaghi back to Jordan - without telling his family.

“They held him for 10 months and then secretly sent him away,” says Shokriea, who says her children ask her every day when they will see their father. “I was not notified of it. Nobody was notified of it.”

“If we want to challenge secret trials of dissidents in Peru or China, we obviously have lost that moral footing when we treat our own people the same way,” says Rubin, who believes that detaining these Middle Eastern men has not made the U.S. a safer place.

“How are Muslim nations supposed to feel about the United States when their nationals are targeted without reasonable suspicion of having committed a crime?”
Of the 1200 men detained after September 11th, the government claims about 130 of them actually did commit crimes.

Shakir Baloch is one of them. Baloch, a Canadian citizen born in Pakistan, admits he entered the U.S. illegally, which is a criminal offense. He wanted to take classes at this New York hospital to become an ultrasound technician. He was arrested soon after September 11th.

“One of the officers told me, ‘You did this thing to us, we will kill you here,’” remembers Baloch.

Like Yaghi, Baloch was sent to the Metropolitan Detention Center in New York, where he claims five prison officials smashed him against the prison walls and told him he was a suspected 9/11 terrorist.

“It sounds extreme, but the fact is I interviewed dozens of people in Shakir's situation, and one after another they told me this story -- that upon entry someone would take their head and smash it into the wall and then make some statement about them being a 9/11 terrorist,” says William Goodman, Baloch's lawyer and the legal director of the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York.

Baloch spent seven months in prison, five of them in solitary confinement. He couldn’t contact his family for five months.

The Justice Department never notified Baloch’s family or the Canadian government that he was in custody. Eventually, he was deported back to Toronto, but Baloch says his ordeal is far from over. He suffers from depression, flashbacks, and he hasn't been able to work.

“I cannot concentrate,” says Baloch. "And when I start reading even a newspaper, I get a headache very quickly.”

Baloch's lawyer has filed a class action lawsuit against the government on behalf of Baloch and the other detainees who were rounded up in the wake of September 11th.

Attorney General John Ashcroft and members from the Justice Department declined to talk to 60 Minutes about what happened to Omar and the other detainees.

But three months after 9/11, Ashcroft told the Senate Judiciary Committee that the detentions were both legal and necessary to keep the nation secure: "Our efforts have been crafted carefully to avoid infringing on constitutional rights while saving American lives."

Rubin, however, disagrees.

“Even post 9/11, and perhaps particularly post 9/11, we've got to make sure that in fighting this so-called war on terrorism we don't compromise those very freedoms that we're supposedly fighting for.”

As for Hady Omar, he's waiting to find out if he can stay in America with his family - or if he'll be deported back to Egypt.
  • Rebecca Leung

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