Here’s a perfect illustration of the problem inherent in the Bush Administration’s insistence on being able to hold terror suspects indefinitely: Benemar “Ben” Benatta is a Muslim man with a military background who was unfortunate enough to try and seek political asylum in Canada one week before the events of 9/11. On September 11 his five year ordeal began:
About a week before, Canadian officials had stopped Benatta as he entered the country from Buffalo to seek political asylum. On that Sept. 11, he was quietly transferred to a U.S. immigration lockup where a day passed before sullen FBI agents told him what the rest of the world already knew: terrorists had attacked the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
It slowly dawned on Benatta that his pedigree – a Muslim man with a military background – made him a target in the frenzied national dragnet that soon followed. The FBI didn’t accuse him of being a terrorist, at least not outright. But agents kept asking if he could fly an airplane.
He told them he couldn’t. It made no difference.
“They gave me a feeling that I was Suspect No. 1,” he said in a recent interview.
The veiled accusations and vehement denials would continue for nearly five years – despite official findings in 2001 that he had no terrorist links and in 2003 that authorities had violated his rights by colluding to keep him in custody.
Take a moment and imagine yourself in that scenario. Through a matter of happenstance you’re suddenly in the hands of the U.S. Government being interrogated about a horrendous crime you weren’t involved with and you have no idea if you’ll ever see the light of day again because the Bush Administration thinks they can hold you for as long as they want to without so much as a hearing to list charges against you. Benatta was in custody for 1,780 days—from the age of 27 to 32—for no reason other than he was a Muslim man trying to gain asylum in Canada.
“I say to myself from time to time, maybe what happened … it was some kind of dream,” he said. “I never believed things like that could happen in the United States.”
In a nation reeling from unthinkable horrors inflicted by an unconventional enemy, it could. And did.
I never thought it could either and it has to stop. This is wrong. This goes against everything I was ever taught was great about this country. I suppose Benatta should consider himself lucky as he wasn’t shipped to one of Bush’s detainee camps in another country where who knows what might have happened to him. Not that this made his experience any easier:
In Brooklyn, he was locked down – minus his shoes – 24 hours a day between FBI interrogations. When he continued to deny any involvement in the attacks, agents threatened to send him back to Algeria. As a deserter, he was certain he would be tortured.
“That was all my thinking all of the time – they were signing my execution warrant,” he said.
Prison guards, he said, dispensed humiliation in steady doses – rapping on his cell door every half hour to interrupt his sleep, stepping on his leg shackles hard enough to scar his ankles, locking him in an outdoor exercise cage despite freezing temperatures, conducting arbitrary strip searches.
The alleged abuses would have been bad enough.
But as a judge eventually pointed out, something else was amiss: Benatta was never charged with a crime.
The FBI grillings stopped sometime in November 2001, when an internal report was prepared saying he was cleared. On paper, he was no longer a terror suspect.
No one bothered to tell him.
December turned to March with Benatta still under lockdown in Brooklyn, without any contact with the outside world. “Each day, with that kind of conditions, is like a year,” he said.
Finally, in April, he received word that he would be transferred to Buffalo to face federal charges of carrying a phony ID when first detained. Benatta was denied bail while he fought the case. But for the first time he was allowed into the general population of federal defendants housed at an immigration detention center.
He also had access to the news, and was shocked by the images accompanying anniversary stories about the Sept. 11 attacks.
“It was the first time I’d really seen what happened,” he said.
It wasn’t until the second anniversary of the attacks that U.S. Magistrate H. Kenneth Schroeder Jr., in a bluntly worded ruling, found that Benatta’s detainment for a deportation hearing was “a charade.”
That still wasn’t enough to get him released. After that Judge’s ruling it would be another two years before an attorney managed to work out a solution that got him into a halfway house for political asylum seekers in Canada, and there’s still no guarantee he’ll be given asylum.
Imagine that for yourself. Five years, during most of which you have no recourse and no hope, only to be released without so much as a “my bad” from the government that kept you locked up for no good reason. The very idea should piss you off. Remember Benetta when you go to vote this November.
Link via AMERICABlog.