9/11 Detainee Released After Nearly Five Years
By TOM HAYS, AP
TORONTO (Aug. 13) - The date was Sept. 12, 2001, but was clueless about the death and destruction one day earlier.
About a week before, Canadian officials had stopped Benatta as he entered the country from Buffalo to seek political asylum. On that Sept. 11, he was quietly transferred to a U.S. immigration lockup where a day passed before sullen FBI agents told him what the rest of the world already knew: terrorists had attacked the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
It slowly dawned on Benatta that his pedigree - a Muslim man with a military background - made him a target in the frenzied national dragnet that soon followed. The FBI didn't accuse him of being a terrorist, at least not outright. But agents kept asking if he could fly an airplane.
He told them he couldn't. It made no difference.
"They gave me a feeling that I was Suspect No. 1," he said in a recent interview.
His Kafkaesque journey through the American justice system concluded In the words of his lawyer, the idea was to "turn back the clock" to when he first crossed the border.
But time did not stand still for Benatta: The clock ran for .
"I say to myself from time to time, maybe what happened ... it was some kind of dream," he said. "I never believed things like that could happen in the United States."
In a nation reeling from unthinkable horrors inflicted by an unconventional enemy, it could. And did.
Sporting a gray T-shirt and cargo shorts on a sizzling summer day, Benatta eased his muscular frame into a white plastic chair in the backyard of a Toronto halfway house for immigrant asylum-seekers. He sipped lemonade, then paused to taste freedom.
"You start to look around and take in everything - the wind in your face, the breeze - everything," he said.
The youngest of 10 children in a middle-class family, Benatta recalled always wanting to be military man like his father. But after he joined the air force, he grew disillusioned. Algerian soldiers, he said, were abusive toward civilians. And militant Muslims were out for blood.
"I was in harm's way in my country," he said.
Benatta entered a six-month training program for foreign air force engineers in Virginia in December 2000, plotting from the start to desert and flee to Canada. In June 2001, he stole out of a hotel the night before his scheduled flight back to Algeria. He lived briefly in New York before arriving Sept. 5 on Canada's doorstep.
A week later, Canadian authorities were escorting him back over the Rainbow Bridge in Niagara Falls, where they turned him over to U.S. immigration officers. On Sept. 16, U.S. marshals took him into custody, put him on a small jet and flew him to a federal jail in Brooklyn that became a clearing house for detainees who were labeled "of interest" to the FBI following the Sept. 11 attacks.
One remark by a marshal stuck in his head: "Where you're going, you won't need shoes anymore."
In Brooklyn, he was locked down - minus his shoes - 24 hours a day between FBI interrogations. When he continued to deny any involvement in the attacks, agents threatened to send him back to Algeria. As a deserter, he was certain he would be tortured.
"That was all my thinking all of the time - they were signing my execution warrant," he said.
Prison guards, he said, dispensed humiliation in steady doses - rapping on his cell door every half hour to interrupt his sleep, stepping on his leg shackles hard enough to scar his ankles, locking him in an outdoor exercise cage despite freezing temperatures, conducting arbitrary strip searches.
The alleged abuses would have been bad enough.
But as a judge eventually pointed out, something else was amiss:
December turned to March with Benatta still under lockdown in Brooklyn, without any contact with the outside world. "Each day, with that kind of conditions, is like a year," he said.
Finally, in April, he received word that he would be transferred to Buffalo to face federal charges of carrying a phony ID when first detained. Benatta was denied bail while he fought the case. But for the first time he was allowed into the general population of federal defendants housed at an immigration detention center.
He also had access to the news, and was shocked by the images accompanying anniversary stories about the Sept. 11 attacks.
"It was the first time I'd really seen what happened," he said.
"That gave me so much hope," Benatta said. "For me, it's like (the judge) had so much nerves. He gave me some kind of hope in the judicial system all over again."
His hopes were dashed by an ensuing standoff: Benatta demanded asylum. Immigration authorities wanted him deported for overstaying his visa.
"Canada was willing to take him back and turn back the clock five years," she said. "Of course, Benemar will never get those five years back."
He remembers cold stares when he ate his first meal at Wendy's and went to a mall to buy clothes.
Today, there's no more soul-numbing confinement. But he's still caught in waiting game, this time to see whether Canada will grant him asylum - a decision at least six months away. He also wonders if he can regain enough spirit to start a new life.
"Now I'm not the same person," he said. "When I came to the United States, I was optimistic. I had so much energy. That's not the case now."