Agents Sued for Detention of Iraqi Refugee

News Release: 
Wednesday, March 16, 2005

June 2, 2006, update: A federal district court judge in Montana has granted the government's motion to dismiss the case, finding that government agents did not violate Habeeb's rights when they arrested and detained him. The ACLU is appealing to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The American Civil Liberties Union today sued two federal agents for unlawfully stopping, interrogating, arresting, imprisoning, and seeking to deport an Iraqi refugee who was lawfully admitted to the United States and had broken no laws. As a result of his illegal detention, the man lost his job and suffered serious humiliation and emotional distress.

“Federal agents singled out a legal refugee from Iraq solely based on his race and ethnicity. It is important that government officials be held accountable for such abuses of power,” said ACLU of Washington Executive Director Kathleen Taylor.

Abdulameer Yousef Habeeb, who came to the United States as a refugee after suffering persecution by Saddam Hussein’s government in Iraq, was stopped at a train station in Havre, Montana on April 1, 2003. Habeeb was en route from Seattle to Washington, DC, to begin a new job with an Arabic-language newspaper. Along with other passengers, Habeeb had stepped off the train to stretch his legs during a 30-minute station stop at Havre. He was singled out by two agents of the United States Customs and Border Patrol who demanded to know where he was from. After Habeeb responded that he was from Iraq and produced a copy of a form showing his admission into the United States as a refugee, Agents Thomas Castloo and Darryl Essing asked whether he had gone through “special registration,” a program requiring that certain noncitizens be fingerprinted and photographed. Although Habeeb’s refugee status meant that he was not required to undergo “special registration,” the agents nonetheless arrested him when he answered that he had not registered.

Habeeb was questioned at length by additional customs and FBI agents and detained overnight. The next day, Agent Essing initiated deportation proceedings against Habeeb based on the charge that he failed to appear for special registration. The agent erroneously stated that Habeeb “failed to appear for special registration on or before Feb. 7, 2003, as mandated by the order of Attorney General published in the Federal Register,” even though refugees were not required to do so.

As a result of the officers’ illegal actions, Habeeb spent three nights in detention at the Hill County Jail in Montana. During that time, he was forced to strip naked in front of a government agent and was humiliated by other detainees who called him “Saddam.” Then he was transported publicly through the airport in handcuffs and flown to Seattle where he spent four more nights in a detention facility, terrified that he would be sent back to Iraq. The deportation proceedings against him were not formally terminated until May 16, 2003.

The controversial special registration program, which the agents cited when detaining Habeeb, required men and boys from 25 predominantly Muslim countries to report for registration, and thousands were put in deportation proceedings as a result. Although certain registration requirements continue, components of the program were suspended by the Homeland Security Department in December 2003 after some officials criticized the program for diverting resources from more pressing needs.

Several national security experts and civil rights organizations charged that the program did little to make the country safer and instead only strained relations with Arab and Muslim communities.

“Mr. Habeeb’s mistreatment in this case is the inevitable outcome of a program that targets people for suspicion based on where they were born or what they look like, rather than individualized conduct,” said Robin Goldfaden, staff counsel with the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project.

Habeeb’s treatment at the hands of U.S. agents is especially disturbing given the circumstances that brought him to the country, according to the ACLU.

Habeeb's brother Abdallah was executed by Saddam Hussein’s regime in 1982, and Habeeb was imprisoned twice, most recently in 1997. His hands and face bear the scars resulting from the torture that he endured during these incidents. Habeeb’s father, who was a prominent business and community leader among the Rabia tribe, which had supported the monarchy that was supplanted by Saddam Hussein and the Baath party, was killed in a suspicious car crash in 1999. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees determined that Habeeb had a well-founded fear of political persecution in Iraq and granted him refugee status. Habeeb was admitted to the United States in July 2002 and took up residence in Kent, Washington.

The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court of Montana at Great Falls and seeks compensation and damages for Habeeb’s losses and suffering. Some of Mr. Habeeb's claims are also pending in U.S. District court in Seattle. Handling the case are ACLU of Washington cooperating attorney Jesse Wing of the firm MacDonald Hoague & Bayless, ACLU of Montana attorney Andrew Huff, ACLU of Washington staff attorney Aaron Caplan, and ACLU Immigrants Rights Project attorneys Goldfaden and Judy Rabinovitz.