U.S. settles suit with Muslims in post-9/11 abuse

NEW YORK Tue Nov 3, 2009 3:13pm EST

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NEW YORK (Reuters) - The U.S. government will pay $1.26 million to five Muslim men detained for months without charges after the September 11 attacks who sued for unlawful imprisonment and abuse, their lawyers said on Tuesday.

The men claimed they suffered inhumane and degrading treatment in a Brooklyn detention center, including solitary confinement, severe beatings, incessant verbal abuse and a blackout on communications with their families and attorneys.

Rachel Meeropol, a lawyer for the Center for Constitutional Rights who brought the case in Brooklyn federal court, said it was the largest settlement so far for claims of abuse in the United States following the attacks of September 11, 2001.

The Justice Department agreed to settle the suit, which was filed in 2002 after hundreds of immigrants were rounded up and held for months following the attacks, according to the CCR.

A spokesman for the U.S. Justice Department was not immediately available to comment on the settlement, in which the U.S. government admits no liability or fault. The five men were all eventually released after being cleared of any connection to terrorism but then deported.

One of the men, Yasser Ebrahim, will receive the largest payout of $356,250 minus legal fees. "After seven long years, I am relieved to be able to rebuild my life," he said in a CCR statement.

"We were deprived of our rights and abused simply because of our religion and the color of our skin," he said. "I know that I and others are still affected by what happened and that communities in the U.S. continue to feel the fallout. I sincerely hope this will never happen again."

WELCOME TO AMERICA

Ebrahim, 37, who had a website design business in Brooklyn, and his plaintiff brother Hany, a deli worker, had lived in New York for several years before the September 11 attacks. They now live in Egypt.

The two were arrested on Sept 30, 2001, and held for eight months even after an FBI memo from December 7 stated they were cleared of links to terrorist groups, the lawsuit said.

A 2003 report by Justice Department's Office of the Inspector General found that some prison officers slammed detainees against walls, twisted their arms and hands in painful ways, stepped on their leg restraint chains and punished them by keeping them restrained for long periods.

The report said videotapes showed some detention center staff "misused strip searches and restraints to punish detainees and that officers improperly and illegally recorded detainees' meetings with their attorneys."

The lawsuit said some of the plaintiffs, upon entering the jail, had their faces smashed into a wall where a blood-smeared American flag T-shirt was taped and told "welcome to America," according to the lawsuit.

The other plaintiffs who settled are Ashraf Ibrahim who also now lives in Egypt, Pakistan native Asif-Ur-Rehman Saffi who now lives in France and former Pakistani physician Shakir Baloch who now lives in Canada.

The lawsuit, which sued top Bush administration officials including former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, was one of many that accused the Bush administration of disregarding constitutional rights.

The claims against Ashcroft and others are continuing. The CCR is also seeking to bring claims on behalf of five new plaintiffs.

(Editing by Daniel Trotta and Cynthia Osterman)

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