Tue, Aug 15, 2006 - Page 7 News List

US' longest-held detainee ponders future in Toronto

LOST YEARS Benemar Benatta was one of the roughly 1,200 mainly Arab and Muslim men caught in the US dragnet after the Sept. 11 attacks


The date was Sept. 12, 2001, but Algerian native Benemar "Ben" Benatta was clueless about the 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 US immigration lockup where a day passed before 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 as a Muslim man with a military background he was likely to be caught up in the US 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.

"They gave me a feeling that I was Suspect No. 1," he said in a recent interview.

The veiled accusations and denials would continue for nearly five years -- despite official findings in 2001 that he had no terrorist links and in 2003 that authorities had violated his rights by colluding to keep him in custody.

Of the estimated 1,200 mostly Arab and Muslim men detained nationwide as potential suspects or witnesses in the Sept. 11 investigation, Benatta would earn a dubious distinction: Human rights groups say the former Algerian air force lieutenant was locked up the longest.

His journey through the US justice system concluded on July 20 when a deal was finalized for his return to Canada. 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 1,780 days. The man detained at 27 was now 32.

"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."

Air force deserter

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.

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 left 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 US immigration officers. On Sept. 16, US marshals took him into custody, put him on a small jet and flew him to a federal jail in New York City's Brooklyn borough that became a clearing house for detainees who were labeled "of interest" to the FBI following the Sept. 11 attacks.

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.

The FBI grillings stopped sometime in November 2001, when an internal report was prepared saying he was cleared. On paper, he was no longer a terror suspect. No one bothered to tell him.

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