Detainees back to sue officials


NEW YORK -- Hundreds of noncitizens were swept up on visa violations in the weeks after Sept. 11, held for months in a heavily criticized federal detention center in Brooklyn as "persons of interest" to terror investigators, and then deported.

This week, one of them is back in New York and another is due today - the first to return to the United States.

They are no longer the accused but the accusers, among six former detainees who are coming back to give depositions in their federal lawsuits against top government officials and detention guards, at a time when the constitutionality of part of the government's counterterrorism offensive is under new scrutiny.

As in the cases of all the Muslim immigrants rounded up in the New York area after the terror attacks, the six were never accused of a crime related to Sept. 11; officials eventually cleared the six of links to terrorism. A report by the inspector general of the Justice Department found systemic problems with immigrant detentions and widespread abuse at the federal detention center where the six were held; several guards have since been disciplined.

But as the six return to the city - four of them from Egypt, one from Pakistan, one from London - the conditions imposed by the U.S. government include the requirement that they be in the constant custody of federal marshals.

They are barred from calling anyone during their weeklong stays at an undisclosed New York hotel, where 12 days of closed depositions are to begin today. They can expect hours of questioning by lawyers representing more than 31 defendants in the lawsuits, including John Ashcroft, the former attorney general, and Robert S. Mueller III, the director of the FBI.

The first returning detainees, Yasser and Hany Ibrahim, who are brothers, say that putting themselves back in the hands of the government they are suing is an act of faith in America. In telephone interviews from Alexandria, Egypt, the two described themselves as frightened but resolute in pressing a 2002 class-action lawsuit charging that they were abused and deprived of due process because of their religion or national origin.

"I'm seeking justice," said Yasser Ibrahim, 33, who had a Web site design business in Brooklyn before he and his brother, Hany, 29, a deli worker, were delivered in shackles to the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn 19 days after Sept. 11. "It's from the same system that did us injustice before. But I have faith in this system. I know what happened before was a mistake."

Charles S. Miller, a spokesman for the Justice Department, said officials would not comment on any aspect of the case, including the conditions of the men's return to the city and their allegations. But in court papers, the defendants deny wrongdoing, and department lawyers contend in part that the Sept. 11 attacks created "special factors" - including the need to detect and deter future terrorist attacks - that outweigh the plaintiffs' right to sue for damages for any constitutional violations.

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