Government Pays Egyptian Man in Civil-Rights Claim

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The U.S. government is paying $300,000 to an Egyptian man who was detained for more than a year after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, but was never linked to terrorism. Ehab Elmaghraby sued, claiming that he was abused at a detention center and that his civil rights were violated.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block. The U.S. Government has agreed to pay $300 thousand dollars to an Egyptian man who claims he was abused during his detention after September 11th. It's the first settlement in a number of lawsuits by Arab and Muslim immigrants held after the terrorist attacks. NPR's Robert Smith has the story from New York.

ROBERT SMITH reporting:

The U.S. Government is not admitting any liability or fault in the nearly yearlong detention of Egyptian immigrant Ehab Elmaghraby. He will remain convicted of a federal crime. And his deportation back to Egypt will stand. One of his lawyers, Alex Reinard(ph), says the monetary settlement is a significant victory.

Mr. ALEX REINARD (Attorney for Ehab Elmaghraby): I think it sends a very powerful statement that the United States can be accountable for these abuses. Even for the abuses that occurred in the aftermath of September 11th when the government was faced with very serious security issues.

SMITH: Elmaghraby was one of hundreds of men rounded up in the days after September 11th. Another of his lawyers, Hay Yong Yuhn(ph), says the actual cause of the arrest was unclear since he was an established businessman.

Ms. HAY YONG YUHN (Attorney for Ehab Elmaghraby): Mr. Elmaghraby was an immigrant who lived in New York for over 10 years. He ran two restaurants. One in Brooklyn, one in Manhattan. He was also a street vendor on weekends.

SMITH: But after his arrest, Elmaghraby was put in solitary confinement in the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn where he alleges that he and another plaintiff, Javaid Iqbal, were abused.

Ms. YONG YUHN: Both Mr. Elmaghraby and Mr. Iqbal were accused of being terrorists, being a Muslim killer.

Mr. REINER: The conditions were daily abusive strip searches, daily abusive language, repeated beatings.

Ms. YONG YUHN: They were denied their access to counsel. They were denied their very basic personal hygiene items such as beddings, a toothbrush, razor, until a month in their detention.

SMITH: Both men eventually pleaded guilty to minor financial crimes unrelated to terrorism and were deported. Their lawsuit didn't challenge the validity of the arrests. Instead it argued that such harsh confinement was evidence of systematic discrimination and should've been subject to appeal. The Justice Department responded in the lawsuit that the FBI needed to keep the detainees isolated from the outside world as it tried to hunt down al-Qaida cells after September 11th.

In court papers, Justice wrote that regulations written in peacetime do not apply in time of fashionable emergency from foreign threats. A federal judge rejected that argument last year, and allowed the case to go forward. The Justice Department declined to comment on the $300 thousand dollar settlement with Elmaghraby.

The lawsuit by Javaid Iqbal will move forward and the Center for Constitutional Rights has a pending class action lawsuit on behalf of all the non-citizens arrested after September 11th. The Center's legal director, Bill Goodman, says that an individual settlement like this one doesn't set precedent.

BILL GOODMAN (Legal Director, Center for Constitutional Rights): It is not an admission of liability. It doesn't have any judicial or legal significance beyond the fact that the government has settled this one case. But I think that in terms of a general acknowledgement, it's going to be hard for the government to stand up in front of a judge or magistrate or even a jury and say we did nothing wrong, given the fact that they paid this gentleman this much money for what they did.

SMITH: This is not the first time there have been complaints against the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn. In 2003 a report by the Justice Department's Inspector General found significant problems with the treatment of detainees at the center including physical abuse and recordings of lawyer-client conversations. Robert Smith, NPR News, New York.

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