New York Times
April 3, 2006
The photograph, seen worldwide, is one of the defining images from Abu Ghraib: a dog strains at its leash, lunging at a terrified prisoner in an orange jumpsuit. One United States military dog handler was recently convicted of abusing detainees at Abu Ghraib, the prison in Iraq, and the court-martial of another is to start in May.
But for Ibrahim Turkmen and Akhil Sachdeva, the image evokes something closer to home: the dogs used inside the Passaic County Jail in New Jersey. The two men, plaintiffs in a pending class-action lawsuit known as Turkmen v. Ashcroft, were among hundreds of immigrant detainees held in the Passaic jail for months after 9/11 before they were cleared of links to terrorism and deported on visa violations.
Until now, lawsuits brought by former detainees against top American officials have focused attention on the maximum security unit of a federal detention center in Brooklyn where the Justice Department's inspector general found widespread abuse. But today in Toronto, as Mr. Sachdeva, a Canadian citizen born in India, gives his first deposition for the class-action lawsuit, the spotlight will shift to the New Jersey jail.
There, about 400 of the 762 mainly Muslim detainees rounded up in the United States after 9/11 were held. The lawsuit charges that the detainees' confinement was arbitrary, illegally based on their religion or national origin, and that guards routinely terrorized them with aggressive dogs.
In November 2004, federal officials who oversee the detention of immigrants facing deportation said they would no longer send detainees to jails that used dogs to patrol inside. That decision by the Department of Homeland Security came a day after National Public Radio broadcast an investigative report saying that the dogs had been used over a three-year period to intimidate, attack and, in at least two cases, bite immigrant detainees in the Passaic County Jail.
"To hear about the use of dogs in this way within the United States is truly shocking," said Jonathan Turley, a professor of national security and constitutional law at George Washington University, who is not involved in the case. "But Abu Ghraib didn't spring from the head of Zeus."
Mr. Turley, an expert in prison law, said in an interview on Friday that the use of the dogs to frighten detainees in the New Jersey jail underscored "the trickle-down effect" of the disregard for immigrants' civil rights that top government officials showed after 9/11. "It trickled down through military intelligence, through low-level personnel and to sheriffs," he said. "Suddenly people who were predisposed to the use of such harsh measures thought they had license to use them, and 9/11 gave them a great appetite."
While dozens of jails and prisons that house federal immigrant detainees use dogs, largely to search for drugs, only seven used them to control prisoners. Jail officials defended the dog patrols, which were used before 9/11 and continue for control of other inmates. Bill Maer, a spokesman for the Passaic County sheriff, Jerry Speziale, denied that the post-9/11 detainees had been mistreated and said that the dog teams are used "strictly for security and contraband detection purposes" and "act in a professional manner when interacting with inmates."
But the dogs were described as part of a nightmarish form of psychological torture by the two plaintiffs, who spoke in separate telephone interviews last week — Mr. Turkmen from Konia, Turkey, and Mr. Sachdeva from Toronto.
Two or three times a week, they said, often around 3 a.m. when the detainees were fast asleep in dormitory cells housing about 50 men, the electronic doors would open and 10 to 20 officers would rush in with four to six unmuzzled, barking dogs on leashes. The dogs, mostly German shepherds, would strain to within inches of the detainees' faces, they said.
"The guards would barely be able to hold the dogs back," said Mr. Turkmen, who could not come for his scheduled deposition because he was denied a visa by the Canadian government, without explanation. "The day of judgment would begin for me — that's what it would feel like."
Mr. Sachdeva said that he found himself trembling uncontrollably, and that some detainees started to cry. "The guards who were holding the dogs used to always laugh," he recalled. "There were like four or five dogs, barking, terrorizing, and the officers shouting: 'Get up! Raise your hands! Against the wall!' One time the dog was so close his tongue touched me."
It was worst, they said, for detainees who, like Mr. Turkmen, lacked English to understand the officers. Once, Mr. Sachdeva said, a Pakistani man of 51 who did not speak a word of English was beaten bloody by guards because he had stayed on his bed after twice being ordered off.
. Government officials will not discuss the lawsuit, brought in 2002 by the Center for Constitutional Rights. But when the Justice Department's inspector general criticized the post-9/11 detentions of immigrants in a scathing 2003 report, John Ashcroft, then the attorney general, said he had "no apologies" for measures taken to protect the public.
Nevertheless, after the inspector general's report, "there were changes made and new detention standards issued nationwide," said Dean Boyd, a spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, part of Homeland Security.
The report found conditions at Passaic considerably less harsh than those at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, where solitary confinement was the norm and beatings of shackled detainees were caught on videotape. But it criticized Passaic for mingling immigrant detainees with felons, and it said that immigration officials had failed to properly monitor the jail and to investigate complaints of abuse.
It told of a detainee with a black eye and a limp who told investigators that he had been assaulted by guards and put in an isolation cell, where guards brought a dog. He said the guards told him "that if he did not get out of bed by the next day, they were going to 'let the dog loose.' "
The report criticized the way federal authorities swept up immigrants after 9/11 as "indiscriminate and haphazard."
Mr. Turkmen, who has four daughters, now 7 to 19, had overstayed a tourist visa to work at a gas station in West Babylon, N.Y., when federal agents came to his apartment. Though an immigration judge agreed to let him leave voluntarily, a standard option in minor immigration violations, he was held for four months more.
Two years after his return to Turkey, he said, he saw a news report about Abu Ghraib and the dogs. "I told my children that this exact form of torture is what I experienced," he said through a translator. "All my children were completely shocked."
Mr. Sachdeva, who is Hindu, had returned to the United States to complete his divorce from an American woman who owned a gas station in Port Washington, N.Y., when F.B.I agents came there looking for someone else.
"At this point I have no faith in the system," said Mr. Sachdeva, 34, who said he was now self-employed as a metals trader because his arrest and deportation made it impossible to get a job. "I'm glad at least I can speak what really happened."