Beth Duff-Brown / Associated Press – 2006-04-22 12:39:16
TORONTO (Apr. 19, 2006) — Akhil Sachdeva, an accountant from India who emigrated to Canada, still wonders why he was seized at gunpoint by US agents and held for months with hundreds of foreigners following the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
Chaining him to a bench at the FBI’s Manhattan office on Dec. 20, 2001, federal agents demanded to know his religious and political beliefs, asked whether he had taken flying lessons and sought his personal views about the suicide hijackers, he said in an interview with The Associated Press.
The 33-year-old is among eight foreign detainees who have sued US officials, contending they were mistreated and terrorized by snarling dogs during four months at the Passaic County Jail in New Jersey. The class-action lawsuit is open to some 800 foreign-born detainees who were held for roughly the same amount of time.
“Maybe because of my skin color? I am an Indian and I look like any person from Pakistan or an Arab country,” Sachdeva, a Hindu native of New Delhi, said in an interview after completing depositions in Toronto taken by lawyers representing the US government.
Sachdeva, now a Canadian citizen, is seeking undisclosed financial compensation for his ordeal by joining the federal lawsuit filed in New York against senior US officials, including FBI Director Robert Mueller and former Attorney General John Ashcroft.
“First of all, I want an apology,” Sachdeva said by telephone from his home in Brampton, Ontario.
“One day I have everything, the next day they destroyed my life and I was not even charged for anything – I had done no crime. I understand that there was a need of national security then, but how can they treat people that way?”
Charles Miller, a Justice Department spokesman, declined comment on the lawsuit, as did Dean Boyd, a spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Washington.
James Margolin, a special agent with the FBI in New York, said he could not talk in any detail about the case, but challenged Sachdeva’s account of being mistreated by FBI agents.
“The allegations about mistreatment at the hands of FBI agents in New York, we believe are entirely without basis in fact and are untrue,” he said.
Filed by the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights on behalf of nearly 800 mostly Muslim and Arab immigrants, the lawsuit alleges federal agents violated the men’s rights by jailing them on the basis of nationality and religion.
They were secretly put in high-security cell blocks normally reserved for dangerous criminals until most of them, including Sachdeva, were cleared of terrorist connections and released.
In court filings, the United States maintains Ashcroft and the other defendants are shielded by immunity laws designed to ensure they can perform their official duties “without the chill and distraction of damage suits.”
“On September 11, 2001, the United States suffered the most devastating attack in our nation’s history,” one defense motion says. “Forced to respond to this unprecedented assault, our country’s highest-ranking officials were immediately called upon to make complex and sensitive judgments with limited guidance from past practice and legal precedent.”
In a motion to dismiss the suit, the defendants say the eight plaintiffs named in the case fail to prove they face a “real and immediate threat of future injury.” It also argues the former detainees, who have been deported to other nations, no longer have any rights under the US Constitution.
Some civil libertarians and human rights advocates say the Bush administration went too far in its drive to round up possible terrorists.
“These men were not charged with any crimes and yet they were treated like criminals,” said Bill Goodman, legal director of the Center for Constitutional Rights.
Sachdeva said he went to New York in early October 2001 to finalize his divorce from his wife, an American who owns a gas station in Port Washington, N.Y. He said his ex-wife told him an FBI agent had come by with questions about a Muslim employee of the gas station.
She asked him to speak to the agent, Sachdeva said, and he went to the FBI office on Dec. 9, 2001, where he was politely questioned by two agents. He said he told them he was planning to return to Canada and they told him that was fine.
Eleven days later, Sachdeva said, 30 or 40 armed agents barged into the uncle’s home where he was staying and took him away. At the FBI’s offices, they shackled his legs to a steel bench and interrogated him for four to five hours, never offering him a call to his family or lawyer, he said.
They asked him if he had ever taken flight training or used a flight simulator. He told them no. He said they also asked if he was a practicing Hindu and what he thought about the people behind the Sept. 11 attacks.
Sachdeva said he was later taken to the Passaic County Jail, where he was strip-searched and put in a cell with dozens of inmates. He said that for the first week, he was forced to sleep on the cold floor and given no toothbrush.
He and the other seven plaintiffs say their biggest fear came from guards who threatened them and the police dogs that were routinely paraded.
“We never knew. Sometimes you’re sitting in a cell and suddenly there are eight or 10 officers holding dogs, then they took us in small corridors and pushed us against the walls and the dogs were two inches away,” Sachdeva said. “They started barking and it was so terrifying.”
Other inmates called them terrorists, and one punched him in the face and chipped a front tooth, he said.
The Passaic County Sheriff’s Department, which runs the jail, calls the lawsuit unjustified and says dogs are used only to sniff out contraband or maintain security.
“Their accusations are not based on the truth, but on their desire to win a lawsuit,” spokesman Bill Maer said.
He said dogs have not been allowed near immigrant detainees at all since the Department of Homeland Security banned their use to control such prisoners in December 2004.
On Dec. 27, 2001, Sachdeva received a notice to appear at an immigration court in Newark, N.J. He conceded he had overstayed his US visa and the judge told him that he would be deported to Canada or India within 30 days.
But he remained jailed for 3 1/2 more months before being released on April 17, 2002. He was driven straight to an airport and, in handcuffs, put on a flight to Toronto, with no money. He got his passport back, but hasn’t seen his Canadian driver’s license and medical insurance card since.
• You can read more about the case at the Center for Constitutional Rights website: http://www.ccr-ny.org