Government Apologizes for Unlawful Arrest and Detention of Iraqi Refugee

News Release: 
Friday, November 20, 2009
Seattle, WA

The American Civil Liberties Union today announced that the United States government has apologized to Abdulameer Yousef Habeeb, an Iraqi refugee whom federal agents unlawfully stopped, interrogated, arrested, imprisoned, and sought to deport. At the request of federal officials and the ACLU, a federal district court judge in Montana vacated a 2006 ruling upholding Habeeb’s arrest and detention. The government also provided Habeeb with compensation for its mistreatment of him.

“Government officials must be held accountable for abusing their powers,” said Jesse Wing, cooperating attorney and board president of the ACLU of Washington. “Federal agents singled out Mr. Habeeb based on his race and ethnicity. The settlement is a strong reminder that the government must not engage in ethnic profiling.”

The actions came in the settlement of a lawsuit the ACLU filed in 2005 on behalf of Habeeb, a resident of Kent, Washington. Habeeb was lawfully admitted to the United States as a refugee from Iraq and had broken no laws. As a result of his illegal detention, he lost his job and suffered humiliation and emotional distress.

Habeeb came to the United States as a refugee after suffering persecution by Saddam Hussein’s government in Iraq. He was stopped at a train station in Havre, Montana on April 1, 2003 while 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.

Habeeb was singled out by two Border Patrol agents 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, the agents asked whether he had gone through the National Security Entry/Exit Registration System (NSEERS, known as “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 Border Patrol and FBI agents and detained overnight. The next day, the government initiated deportation proceedings against Habeeb based on the charge that he failed to appear for special registration. In the charging document, one of the Border Patrol agents falsely stated that Habeeb had been required to appear for special registration even though he was refugee.

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.

“Mr. Habeeb’s mistreatment in this case was 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, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project.

On June 13, 2007, U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Sullivan for the Western District of Washington gave Habeeb a formal statement that “the United States of America acknowledges that, by not registering under NSEERS, you did nothing wrong. The United States of America regrets the mistake.”

On July 16, 2007, Judge Sam Haddon of the U.S. District Court in Great Falls, Montana, vacated his original June 2006 judgment in Habeeb’s lawsuit that upheld the Border Patrol agents’ mistreatment of him. When Habeeb had appealed that judgment, the government acknowledged that its agents had mistakenly arrested and detained him, and repudiated its original position.

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

Habeeb's brother Abdallah was executed by Saddam Hussein’s regime in 1982, and Habeeb was imprisoned twice, most recently in 1997. He still bears the scars resulting from the torture that he endured during these incidents. Habeeb’s father, a prominent business and community leader among the Rabia tribe that had supported the monarchy supplanted by Saddam Hussein and the Baath party, was killed 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 discriminatory special registration (NSEERS) program, which the agents cited when detaining Habeeb, required men and boys from 25 predominantly Muslim countries to report for registration; 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.

ACLU of Washington cooperating attorney Jesse Wing of the law firm MacDonald Hoague & Bayless, ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project attorneys Robin Goldfaden and Judy Rabinovitz, ACLU of Washington staff attorney Aaron Caplan, and ACLU of Montana attorney Andrew I. Huff and Legal Director Elizabeth Griffing handled the case.