Toronto, Associated Press:
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 in the months following the 9/11 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 hundreds of other foreign detainees who have sued US officials contending they were mistreated and terrorised by snarling dogs during four months at the Passaic County Jail in New Jersey.
"Maybe because of my skin colour? I am an Indian and I look like any person from Pakistan or an Arab country," Sachdeva said after completing depositions in Toronto taken by lawyers representing the US government in the suit.
Sachdeva, now a Canadian citizen, is seeking undisclosed financial compensation for his ordeal by joining the federal class-action 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 – 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.
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.
Sachdeva said he went to New York in early October 2001 to finalise his divorce from his wife, an American who owns a gas station in Port Washington, New York. He said his ex-wife told him an FBI agent had come by and had 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 before going back to Canada 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 attack.
Sachdeva thinks it was just after midnight when he was driven in a police van 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 men named in the lawsuit 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.
On Dec 27, 2001, Sachdeva received a notice to appear at an immigration court in New Jersey. 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 for the civil immigration violation.
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 has not seen his Canadian driver’s license and medical insurance card.
James Margolin, a special agent with the FBI in New York, said he could not say much about the case, but challenged Sachdeva’s account of being mistreated by FBI agents.