Responsible for a witch hunt

June 25, 2015

Perpetrators of the Bush-era war at home are back on the hot seat, reports Alan Maass.

A FEDERAL appeals court has put the spotlight back on top Bush administration officials for their role in the post-9/11 witch hunt against Arabs and Muslims.

Judges from the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a lower court ruling that dismissed claims against former Attorney General John Ashcroft, former FBI director Robert Mueller and former INS Commissioner James Ziglar made in a civil lawsuit over the treatment of detainees at a specially created special isolation unit--known as the "Hole"--in the Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) in Brooklyn.

The abuses came immediately after the September 11 attacks, when Muslim, Arab, and South Asian men were rounded up in large numbers. The plaintiffs in the lawsuit Turkmen v. Ashcroft were consigned to solitary confinement for months, even though they were only charged with minor immigration violations such as overstaying a visa.

The suit charges that the government had no reason to suspect the men of being connected to terrorism other than their race and religion. But that was enough in the frenzied atmosphere after 9/11.

Former Attorney General John Ashcroft
Former Attorney General John Ashcroft (Guenter Schiffmann)

The detainees were held in a specially created area in the MDC and denied contact with the outside world. They also suffered beatings, verbal abuse and sleep deprivations, and they were denied the ability to practice their religion. As the Center for Constitutional Rights, which filed the lawsuit, described in a statement:

Among other documented abuses, many of the 9/11 detainees had their faces smashed into a wall where guards had pinned a t-shirt with a picture of an American flag and the words, "These colors don't run." The men were slammed against the t-shirt upon their entrance to MDC and told, "Welcome to America." The t-shirt was smeared with blood, yet it stayed up on the wall at MDC for months.

"The suffering endured by those who were imprisoned merely because they were caught up in the hysteria of the days immediately following 9/11 is not without a remedy," wrote the two judges of the divided appeals court panel that revived the suit. "Holding individuals in solitary confinement 23 hours a day with regular strip-searches because their perceived faith or race placed them in the group targeted for recruitment by Al Qaeda violated the detainees' constitutional rights."

THE SUIT was first filed as a class action in 2002, naming MDC administrators as defendants, along with the top Bush administration overseers of the war at home. At one point, a federal judge dismissed the claims against Ashcroft, Mueller and Ziglar, saying that there wasn't enough specific evidence to link them to the abuses suffered at the Brooklyn jail. The ruling of the appeals court panel now rightly reinstates the three as defendants.

"Punishing low-level perpetrators is necessary but hardly sufficient to prevent future abuse," As Rachel Meeropol, a lawyer with the CCR, said in a statement. "Orders came from officials at the highest levels of government. Now we have the chance to ensure that they are held accountable and not treated as if they are above the law."

In the witch-hunt atmosphere after September 11, the nightmare perpetrated by Ashcroft, Mueller and the rest went virtually unnoticed in the media, except for a few independent websites and publications. In 2002, Socialist Worker reported on the case of one of the MDC detainees, Nabil al-Marabh. As Nicole Colson wrote:

Al-Marabh, a Kuwaiti citizen, was arrested more than 11 months ago in the first wave of post-September 11 detentions. At the time, federal officials claimed that al-Marabh was one of Osama bin Laden's "key operatives." But after nearly a year of investigation, prosecutors haven't been able to accuse al-Marabh of anything more serious than an immigration violation.

That hasn't stopped the government from making al-Marabh's life a living nightmare. For the first eight months of his incarceration, al-Marabh was held in a special isolation unit...Along with about 40 other detainees, he was confined in his cell for up to 23 hours day. "It was like nothing worse than hell, and I did hunger strikes five times, asking for a lawyer, for a judge," al-Marabh recently told BBC reporter Emma Simpson.

In retaliation, guards at the facility "punished" al-Marabh by forcing him to sleep on a urine-soaked mattress for 10 days, without enough water to wash himself. Al-Marabh also describes being beaten by guards on two separate occasions.

Al-Marabh was one of what Independent journalist Andrew Gumbel called "The Disappeared." But as time went on, more people learned about the treatment of the these close-to-home victims of the U.S. "war on terror"--and protested. By March 2002, the small weekly demonstrations outside the MDC, in solidarity with the detainees inside, had grown to 200 or more.

"Slowly but surely, more people from other communities have been coming out--African Americans, Latinos, as well as South Asians and Muslims," one of the protest organizers, Debbie Almontaser, said. "It shows that these groups are trusting the larger community. They see now that people are behind them--that they aren't alone anymore and that they can come out and stand up for their rights."

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