One man still locked up from 9/11 sweeps
AP | October 16 2006
In a jail cell at an immigration detention center in Arizona sits a man who is not charged with a crime, not suspected of a crime, not considered a danger to society.
But he has been in custody for five years.
His name is Ali Partovi. And according to the Department of Homeland Security, he is the last to be held of about 1,200 Arab and Muslim men swept up by authorities in the United States after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
There has been no full accounting of all of these individuals. Nor has a promised federal policy to protect against unrestricted sweeps been produced.
Human rights groups tried to track the detainees; members of Congress denounced the arrests. They all believed that all of those who had been arrested had been deported, released or processed through the criminal justice system.
Just this summer, it was reported that an Algerian man, Benemar "Ben" Benatta, was the last detainee, and that his transfer to Canada had closed the book on the post-9/11 sweeps.
But now The Associated Press has learned that at least one person — Partovi — is still being held. The Department of Homeland Security insists he really is the last one in custody.
"Certainly it's not our goal as an agency to keep anyone detained indefinitely," said DHS spokesman Dean Boyd. Boyd said the department would like to remove Partovi from the United States but that he refuses to return to his homeland of Iran.
And so he remains, a curious remnant of a desperate time.
Arrests now, questions later
Within hours of the Sept. 11 attacks — before it was even clear if they were over — the FBI was ordered to identify the terrorists who had managed to slip so smoothly into American society and to catch anyone who might have been working with them. The FBI operation was called PENTTBOM; it was swift and fierce, and the stakes couldn't have been higher.
When in doubt, the orders came, arrest now and ask questions later. To make this easier, law enforcement officials were authorized to use immigration charges as needed. The risk of allowing terrorists to slip away just because there wasn't ample evidence to hold them on terror charges could not be tolerated. And thus hundreds of individuals who were not terrorists, nor associated with terrorists, were temporarily taken into city, county and federal custody.
They were caught in their bedrooms while they slept, pulled from the restaurant kitchens where they worked, stopped at the border, even federal offices where they had gone to seek help. In the end, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft's call for "aggressive detentions" in the unprecedented sweeps netted more than 1,200 individuals in less than two months.
The initial reaction to the sweeps was confusion. Members of Congress, leading civil rights organizations, Arab and Muslim activists, even the Justice Department's internal watchdogs, didn't know how to react.
"After 9/11, everyone was caught off guard. There was so much secrecy surrounding the government's policies that it took a number of months before the public and civil-liberties groups began unraveling what the government was doing," said Lee Gelernt, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney.
Then came demands, from Congress, from the Justice Department's Inspector General, from the ACLU and Human Rights Watch and from Arab and Muslim activists, that these individuals must be accounted for.
To date that hasn't occurred.
"The fact is the United States has not come forward with information on what happened to these people, or released their names," said Rachel Meeropol, a staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights, an advocacy organization that represents several detainees being held in Guantanamo. "Our understanding is that the majority of these people who were swept up on immigration violations were then held in detention until they were cleared of any connection to terrorism. We believe that accounts for the vast majority of people who were swept up."
Immigration violation charges issued
Here's what is known: 762 of the 1,200 PENTTBOM arrestees were charged with immigration violations at the behest of the FBI because agents thought they might be associated with terrorism. Partovi was one of these 762. Much as Partovi used a false passport, nearly all of these detainees had violated immigration laws, either by overstaying their visas, entering the country illegally, or violating some other immigration law.
Unlike Partovi, almost everyone was either deported or released within a few months.
There were still at least 438 other individuals who were not accounted for. Most of those individuals, said Justice Department officials, were released within days. But at least 93 were charged with federal crimes and processed through the courts, and an unknown number were deemed material witnesses.
As the years passed, said the ACLU's Gelernt, public concern faded.
"Initially there was a lot of attention on the 1,200 people, but we're still not sure exactly what happened to all of them," said the ACLU's Gelernt.
The repercussions are still being felt, say advocates.
"Those 1,200 were taken in on pseudo-immigration charges," said Jennifer Daskal of Human Rights Watch. "It really is a black mark on the U.S. and it undermines our intelligence gathering because it creates distrust between law enforcement officials and communities where those officials should be building rapport and trust."
"People lost years of their lives and families were ripped apart in the frenzy of fear," said Kerri Sherlock, director of policy and planning at the Rights Working Group, an advocacy organization in Washington D.C. "Do we really want to be a country that locks people up without guaranteeing their basic constitutional rights?"
In June 2003, the Justice Department's inspector general, an in-house auditor, found widespread abuses in the way immigration laws were used to hold people suspected of terrorism in the months following 9/11. The inspector general made 21 recommendations aimed at protecting individuals' civil rights. Twenty of those recommendations have been adopted.
The last recommendation calls for the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security to formalize policies, responsibilities, and procedures for managing a national emergency that involves alien detainees. After the inspector general's report, the Justice and Homeland Security departments agreed with the recommendation and began negotiating over language. Officials at both departments say those negotiations are still going on.
"The Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice continue to work toward the development of formal joint policies and approaches for the handling of such national security cases during periods of national impact," said Homeland Security Department spokesman Dean Boyd.
Rights decided case-by-case
However, Boyd stressed that guidelines were set up in 2004 to make sure detainees' rights are being protected on a case-by-case basis.
"We learned from the past," he said. "We evaluate each situation to make sure it's being handled fairly."
Tim Lynch, a lawyer with the libertarian think tank Cato Institute, said guidelines are not enough.
"I don't think the guidelines will mean very much in an emergency if they don't have the binding force of law," he said. "We shouldn't be surprised if those guidelines aren't followed if there's another massive attack."
When the AP wrote Ali Partovi to ask for an interview, he called collect from the Florence Correctional Center, a privately run detention center in Arizona where he is held. Adamantly, he said he did not want to be interviewed and that he wanted to remain private, even though he said understood his case files, including litigation he files himself, are part of the public record.
He later reportedly told a public affairs officer at the facility that he is too busy for an interview — perhaps preparing his many legal appeals.
Suing for up to $10 million
In his lawsuits — there have been seven so far — Partovi claims he is a victim of civil rights abuses and demands between $5 million and $10 million in restitution. The most recent was filed in July.
The staff at the jail where he was first held "poured hot coffee on my body, they also poured cold ice water on my body," he wrote in one, claiming that staffers also cuffed his hands and feet, which caused "my ankle and lower extremities to swell abnormally."
"It is my firm belief that I am constantly subjected to physical abuse (because) of my ethnicity, I am Iranian of Persian birth," he wrote in another, filed this summer. In that lawsuit he claimed that immigration officers forced him to kneel while handcuffed, and then kicked and punched his stomach and kidneys.
"As you can imagine, this is very, very painful when you are cuffed from behind," he wrote.
A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney said that office was aware of the lawsuits but could not comment on them. A detention center spokesman said he was not aware of any lawsuits and could not respond.
Refused a lawyer's help
Partovi doesn't have a lawyer, and he told the AP he doesn't want one, choosing instead to represent himself, gleaning expertise from the prison library.
He did have a lawyer once, when he was arrested in Guam in the fall of 2001, trying to enter the country on a fraudulent Italian passport.
"Mr. Partovi came into Guam International Airport using a false passport. He explained about having been married to a Japanese women and the arrangement wasn't working out. He applied for political asylum, and I believe the federal government thought he might be a terror suspect," said Curtis Charles Van de Veld, who was hired by the federal government to represent him.
Partovi was sentenced to 175 days in custody, which he had already served by the time he pleaded guilty in 2002. Then he was turned over to the Department of Homeland Security.
Until the AP contacted him, Van de Veld didn't realize his former client was still in custody.
"I'm surprised he hasn't contacted me," he said.
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