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A civil rights group in New York has filed the first constitutional challenge to the federal government’s detention of hundreds of Muslim immigrants in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The class action suit by the Center for Constitutional Rights, filed Wednesday in Brooklyn’s federal court, charges that the detainees have been held as criminals without probable cause, in presumption of guilt rather than innocence, and largely without access to lawyers, and that the men were routinely beaten, deprived of sleep and isolated for much of their incarceration. The suit focuses on treatment at two institutions, New Jersey’s Passaic County Jail and the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, N.Y. The plaintiffs claim violations of their Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure, Fifth Amendment rights of due process and right to counsel and First Amendment free exercise of religious rights, as well as violations of the Alien Tort Claims Act. In response, the U.S. Department of Justice announced Wednesday that the Bureau of Prisons would investigate the abuse allegations. That inquiry would join an existing one by the Office of the Inspector General into both jails. The suit has been expected for months, ever since civil rights lawyers and immigration attorneys gathered in Newark, N.J., in December to share strategies that would help the detainees. Since then, the American Civil Liberties Union has filed four suits aimed at getting information on the detainees and opening their secret immigration court hearings. Immigration lawyers have complained about the treatment of clients and the extra legal hurdles thrown up by the government that non-Muslims in similar cases don’t face. Some have filed habeas and mandamus writs in federal district court, but no one had taken on the entire investigation, contesting the government’s post-Sept. 11 crackdown. The plaintiffs make numerous claims of harsh treatment: Ibrahim Turkmen, a Turkish national who overstayed his tourist visa and worked pumping gas at a Long Island, N.Y., service station, was arrested at his Long Island apartment Oct. 13, 2001, by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. He was detained in Passaic County and, although he speaks little English, was interrogated and persuaded to sign papers he could not read. During an Oct. 31 court date in Newark’s U.S. Immigration Court, he was given an interpreter who allegedly spoke neither English nor Turkish. Turkmen accepted a voluntary departure order but remained in jail until Feb. 25, 2002, awaiting a separate “clearance” from the FBI and the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the suit says. Turkmen’s experience may have been the mildest. The other two men, Asif-Ur-Rehman Saffi and Syed Amjad Ali Jaffri, were held at the Metropolitan Detention Center, which has been criticized by Amnesty International because it has refused to allow human rights groups to assess conditions there. Saffi, a French citizen and native of Pakistan, was arrested Sept. 29, 2001, while trying to leave the country before his visa expired in October. He was denied a request to see the French consul, and then detained at MDC. Upon arrival, the suit charges, guards confiscated his eyeglasses, slammed his face into a wall, bent his thumbs back, kicked him in the face, stamped on his bare feet and threatened to punish him if he smiled. His cell was kept lit around the clock, he was not allowed to know the time of day and he was deprived of soap and towels, the suit alleges. In December, he was given a copy of the Quran, but he could not read it because his glasses had not been returned. At the end of November, two months after his incarceration, he was allowed to make his first telephone call. Jaffri was kept in solitary confinement in a windowless cell 23 hours a day for six months after his arrest Sept. 27 for working without a valid visa. He was forbidden to talk to neighboring cellmates and was told that visits from his attorney would be ended if he disobeyed. His meals were served without utensils, the suit alleges. Guards also beat his head against a wall, loosening his lower front teeth. He was not allowed to see a dentist. On Dec. 20, he was ordered deported but did not leave jail until April 1. The INS has not returned Jaffri’s personal effects, including his money, the suit claims. The suit also alleges that lists of telephone numbers for immigration attorneys who accept collect calls from detainees at the Passaic and MDC facilities are outdated or defunct. The defendants are U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, FBI Director Robert Mueller, INS Commissioner James Ziglar, MDC Warden Dennis Hasty and various “John Doe” MDC corrections officers. Justice Department spokeswoman Barbara Comstock, in a statement, denied that the detainees were denied counsel. “We take these allegations seriously,” she added. “The Bureau of Prisons has a system for investigating such allegations and we are confident that they will do a thorough inquiry.” Center for Constitutional Rights Director William Goodman is skeptical. “I think that what they want to do is investigate the case so they can get prepared in advance of this lawsuit,” he says.

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