By Mara Zepeda
Rachel Meeropol’s work is far from over. Two days after her clients, five Muslim plaintiffs held in a Brooklyn prison after 9/11, were awarded $1.26 million from the federal government, Meeropol is at work building a larger class action lawsuit. The Center for Constitutional Rights, which represents other prisoners rounded up in the post 9/11 sweeps, amended its complaint on Monday to include five additional plaintiffs. Meeropol hopes that the case will proceed to trial. “Our end goal is to try to get a determination that what happened was unlawful,” Meeropol says.
The government admitted no liability in this week’s settlement. The new case Meeropol is building would seek to do just that, and hold then-Attorney General John Ashcroft, FBI Director Robert Mueller and former INS Commissioner James Ziglar accountable for the abuses the detainees endured.
What happened during the hundreds of days the plaintiffs spent held in detention was detailed in a report released by the Office of the Inspector General in 2003. After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, illegal immigrants were rounded up in citywide sweeps. The report details the treatment of more than 700 inmates who were held on immigration charges in connection with the investigation of the September 11 attacks. The five plaintiffs in the Turkmen v. Ashcroft case were among the detainees held at Brooklyn’s Administrative Maximum Special Housing Unit.
The report describes conditions in which inmates were strip searched, and locked in their constantly illuminated cells 23 hours a day. It also cites videotapes that document such abuses as including slamming detainees against walls, twisting their arms, as well as the misuse of strip searches and improper use of restraints. It also asserts that meetings between the inmates and their attorneys were illegally taped.
Many prisoners landed in the Brooklyn unit based on anonymous tip-offs, says Meeropol, who explained how her clients were apprehended as a result of these calls. In one instance, shortly after September 11th, a postal worker called the FBI to report a “suspicious looking” Arab man renting a post office box. Days later, she says, federal agents appeared at the home of the accused, arrested him jailed him in Brooklyn. In another case, a Department of Motor Vehicles employee identified an illegal social security card and reported it to the FBI, which led to the arrest of another one of Meeropol’s clients. A rental truck company owner, she says, recounted renting a truck to three Arab men who appeared to be nervous and gave vague answers, which resulted in imprisonment for another plaintiff. She says the authorities investigated these and countless other tips and made arrests for immigration violations which led to extended imprisonment as the claims were investigated.
“They were swept up on the street for no reason and held as terrorists,” says Meeropol. “They were harassed and kept from practicing their religion. You can’t get over an experience like that, even when it ends.”
“Today’s settlement is a step along the road of holding government officials accountable, and acting as a deterrent” for similar activity, Meeropol continued. She also hopes that after seven years of negotiations, the settlement will allow her clients, who now reside in Egypt, France and Canada, to move on with their lives. For now, Meeropol’s will continue working towards a class action trial that will determine, once and for all, if the government should be held accountable for the extended imprisonment and potential abuse of hundreds of illegal immigrants.