Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Benamar Benatta

One of the persons seeking to participate in the Iacobucci Inquiry is Benamar Benatta. I had never heard of this person before. It seems that Benatta was traveling from the US to Canada to seek asylum when he was caught by Canadian authorities with false ID. This was just before 9/11. Afterwards he was taken back to the US without any due process by Canadian authorities. In the US he was jailed for years and he claims he was tortured. This is another case where Canada helped ensure that a person was jailed (albeit not a citizen) and mistreated if not tortured. In fact Benatta was actually in fear of Islamic radicals in Algeria. So this fellow spent four years in jail as a suspected terrorist when it seems he had absolutely zilch to do with terrorism. The article appeared in August 2006.

His nightmare began on 9/12
August 09, 2006

A refugee claimant who was handed over to American officials at the border as a terror suspect the day after 9/11 says he is still trying to figure out how he was launched into a five-year nightmare in U.S. jails.

Benamar Benatta, newly freed after 58 months in custody, is a former Algerian Air Force lieutenant. He is believed to be the last of about 1,200 Muslim men swept up in post-9/11 investigations to be released.

He was finally allowed to leave a U.S. immigration lockup late last week after his lawyers brokered a deal with Canadian immigration authorities to let him pursue the refugee claim he originally began at the Peace Bridge days before the 9/11 attacks.

In his first interview with a Canadian newspaper since his release, Benatta, 32, told the Star yesterday that the legal details of his Sept. 12, 2001, transfer to the U.S. are still murky. At the time, there was no law in place allowing Canadian officials to return refugee claimants suspected of terrorism to the U.S., as there now is under post-9/11 provisions of the Immigration Act.

While the case has some parallels to that of Maher Arar — the Canadian citizen shipped by the U.S. to Syria under the controversial practice of "rendition" — Benatta's status as a non-citizen and potential refugee claimant puts his transfer to U.S. custody in a legal grey area.

Within days of the attacks, Benatta found himself in solitary confinement under abusive conditions — some of which are documented in court filings — south of the border.

"They told me I was being transferred to another detention centre within Canada," he said. "I knew I was in the States when I found myself in front of the U.S. Customs officers. I was in some sort of shock."

Canadian immigration officials said yesterday they could not comment on the specifics of Benatta's case; the Canadian Department of Justice, which usually handles extradition issues, did not return calls for comment.

U.S. court documents from a 2003 judge's inquiry into Benatta's treatment state that "Canadian authorities alerted United States authorities of defendant's presence and profile ... and returned him to the United States."

The names of officials who made the decision to transfer Benatta are not given in the filings.

Benatta first arrived in the United States on a visitor's visa in late December 2000. His permit was good for only six months, which the avionics technician spent doing military surveillance and anti-terrorism training with other Algerian Air Force personnel at a Virginia-based defence contractor.

The truth, Benatta explained in his French-accented English, was that he had become a conscientious objector and had no plans to return home. By the end of the summer of 2001, he decided to file a refugee claim in Canada. He expected difficulties with his claim when he arrived at the Peace Bridge, on Sept. 5, 2001, because he was carrying false U.S. identification cards, including the social security card he had used to get work as a busboy in New York City after his visa expired. He said the documents prompted Canadian immigration officials to detain him in Niagara Falls for "identification checking."

"During my detention, Sept. 11th happens," Benatta said.

At the time, Benatta had no idea about the attacks, having been held by immigration since Sept. 5. He learned about the attacks when FBI agents began questioning him on Sept. 12.

In the days that followed, he was interrogated extensively and shuffled between U.S. immigration and criminal law enforcement officials. At no time was he given access to a lawyer, a fact confirmed in the court documents.

What transpired during those days is a blur for Benatta, but court filings say he was "spirited off" to Brooklyn's Metropolitan Detention Center, a facility normally used to house crime suspects, not immigration detainees.

Even though Benatta was cleared of terror links in November 2001, he was left to languish at the Brooklyn jail until the following April.

"There was constant abuse at that time. For instance, they hit your head, every half hour they came, they wake you," he said. "During the first month I wasn't allowed to shave or wear shoes. There was no recreation. I was locked up 24 hours, with a light 24 hours. When they escort you outside, they hit your head, they twist your hands, they step on the shackles sometimes, they want to trip you," he said.

Benatta also said jail guards wrote the letters `WTC' on his cell door to mark his connection to the World Trade Centre investigation.

In 2004, Benatta's allegations of abuse in custody were presented to a human rights panel of the United Nations by attorneys of the American Civil Liberties Union.

The group later accused the Bush administration of subjecting him to eight months of a "high security prison regime ... that could be described as torture."

"I ran from my country, where I was persecuted over there and there was threats against my life," he said. "I was expecting to come here and find America or Canada, they open their arms to me. I came here to forget what happened to me back home ... and get on with my life."

A federal magistrate who looked into Benatta's claims wrote in 2003 that he had been "held in custody under harsh conditions which can be said to be `oppressive.'" He recommended that Benatta be released, saying he had been "undeniably deprived of his liberty."

The fact that Benatta had been held on alleged immigration charges after he was cleared of terror links prompted the magistrate to call the prosecution's case a "ruse," a "sham" and a "charade."

"The FBI would have been derelict in its duty if it did not pursue an investigation of the defendant after the Canadian authorities contacted the U.S. officials on Sept. 12, 2001," he wrote, adding: "Absent due process, the end cannot justify the means no matter how well or good intentioned the parties may be, for as the adage teaches, `the road to hell is paved with good intentions.'"

In spite of the magistrate's recommendations, Benatta was held at the Buffalo Federal Detention Facility while he fought the American attempt to deport him, until last week.

"I was believing they just locked me down and threw the keys away," he said.

Now, Benatta is staying at a Toronto refugee shelter, where he'll remain until he gets his footing. It will probably be more than a year before he learns the outcome of his refugee claim.

He has few belongings — most were lost when he was transferred. But Benatta has few complaints about his current digs. "It's better than the jail, that's for sure," he said.

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