Lawsuit: Somalis beaten, straightjacketed on failed deportation flight

Federal immigration authorities and their contract guards “beat, kicked, choked, pushed, straightjacketed, threatened to kill, and berated” detainees during a failed attempt to deport them to Somalia this month, a new class-action lawsuit alleges.

Filed this week, the federal complaint says the Somali men and women — some residing in Georgia — were shackled for almost two days while they traveled to Africa and then returned to the U.S.

Because of news media attention surrounding the bizarre episode, the lawsuit contends, the 92 Somalis could face mortal threats from Shabab, a deadly al-Qaida-linked insurgent group, if they are returned to their homeland.

On Tuesday, a federal judge in Miami issued an order temporarily blocking the government from seeking to deport them. U.S. District Judge Darrin Gayles’ order is set to remain in effect until Jan. 2, when he will preside over the next hearing in the case.

“Defendants shall provide plaintiffs with adequate medical treatment for any injuries they have sustained,” Gayles wrote in his order.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which is arguing Gayles has no jurisdiction over the matter, has denied anyone was injured in an altercation on the plane.

“They were provided food, water, medical attention, and were allowed to use the bathroom,” John Schultz Jr., a deputy assistant director with ICE, said in a court filing Tuesday. “ICE takes all allegations of officer misconduct seriously and has referred the deportees’ complaints to the appropriate office for review and investigation.”

RELATED: ICE: Hotel power, water outages caused deportation flight to turn back

News about the lawsuit comes as the Trump administration is defending in federal courts the latest version of its travel ban, which seeks to temporarily bar visitors from Somalia and some other Muslim-majority countries. Most — but not all — of the Somalis who were on the failed deportation flight this month are Muslims, according to the lawsuit. ICE says it is not targeting people for expulsion based on their religion.

Further, nine of the Somalis lived in Georgia, said Omar Shekhey, who leads the Somali American Community Center in Clarkston. The Immigration Clinic at the University of Miami School of Law and several other organizations filed the lawsuit on behalf of seven of the detainees, including Ibrahim Ahmed Musa, a father of four who was ordered deported by a federal immigration judge in Atlanta.

The Dec. 7 deportation flight drew international media attention after ICE disclosed it had returned to America with all on board. En route to Djibouti — which is adjacent to Somalia — the plane first landed in the Senegalese capital of Dakar to pick up a relief flight crew.

ICE says those crew members didn’t get adequate rest at their hotel because of power and water outages. Meanwhile, the Senegalese government would not allow the detainees to get off the plane as it sat parked at the Dakar airport for about 21 hours, according to ICE.

The detainees were denied access to a working bathroom during the flight, according to the lawsuit, prompting some to urinate in bottles or on themselves.

“After about 20 hours, I stood up and asked what was going on and why we were waiting,” Farah Ali Ibrahim, one of the plaintiff in the lawsuit, said in a prepared statement. “An officer grabbed me by the collar and I fell to the floor. Officers began dragging me down the aisle and beating me.”

Ibrahim said ICE put him in a straitjacket.

The flight would not have been able to leave for Djibouti for 20 more hours, according to ICE, so the agency decided to return the plane to the United States and reschedule for another time.

In court papers filed this week, ICE said it determined that because of “officer fatigue and the detainees’ general restlessness, it was not safe to remain on the ground an additional 20 hours.”

The plane landed Dec. 8 in Florida, and the detainees were sent to immigration detention centers in Miami and Moore Haven, Fla.

Esra Shurbjy of Atlanta said her fiancé, Maruf Sharif, who was among the detainees on the plane, called her early Wednesday morning and told her ICE abruptly canceled plans to deport him that day because of the court challenge.

“They took their money out of their accounts and gave them their cash, gave them their clothes, gave them their bags, processed them out of the jail and put them on the bus,” she said. “And then at the last minute — as everyone is on the bus — they are like, ‘We just got an email from ICE basically saying to abort the mission, to stop this and to process you back into the jail.’ So they didn’t go through with it.”

Also assisting with the lawsuit are Americans for Immigrant Justice, the James H. Binger Center for New Americans at the University of Minnesota Law School and the Legal Aid Service of Broward County. Among the concerns they cited in their lawsuit is the Oct. 14 twin truck bombings Shabab carried out in Mogadishu, an attack that killed hundreds. Since then, the U.S. military has carried out numerous airstrikes against Shabab outside of Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital.

“The December 7 flight has received widespread media coverage in Somalia. Everyone knows they are coming,” said Rebecca Sharpless, who directs the University of Miami Law School’s Immigration Clinic. “It is not safe for these men and women to return, especially in light of the escalation of terrorist violence in Somalia in the last weeks.”

ICE Deputy Director Tom Homan released a statement Wednesday afternoon, saying a majority of the 92 detainees have criminal records, including convictions for murder, rape, aggravated assault and sexual assault. 

“I am troubled by this order, which appears to ignore the fact that all of these aliens were lawfully ordered removed from the U.S. after full and fair proceedings,” Homan said. “ICE has a sworn duty to enforce our immigration laws and protect the safety and security of Americans, and this misguided court order impedes the fulfillment of our lawful mission."

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