By Anushka Asthana
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 21, 2006; Page A09
Benamar Benatta, believed to be the last remaining domestic detainee from the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, was released yesterday after negotiations involving Canada, the United States and his attorneys ended his captivity at nearly five years.
Benatta crossed the border from the United States to Canada, where he will be allowed to resume the bid for political asylum that resulted in his detention shortly before the terrorist attacks.
The Algerian air force lieutenant spent more than 58 months behind bars even though the FBI formally concluded in November 2001 that he had no connection to terrorism.
He was among more than 1,200 mainly Muslim men who were arrested after the attacks and held under tight security while authorities scoured their backgrounds for links to terrorist groups. It is believed that Benatta was the last to be released, though it is difficult to be certain because of the secrecy that surrounded some of the cases.
“This is the result of an individual being labeled a terrorist and the government treating him as such,” Benatta’s attorney Catherine Amirfar said yesterday. “He was fully cleared by the FBI of any connection to terrorism . . . but the label stuck, so a man with no previous criminal record was detained for a visa overstay.”
Benatta came to the United States in 2000 for military training and then overstayed a six-month visa. He arrived at the Peace Bridge near Buffalo seeking political asylum in Canada on Sept. 5, 2001. Officials there detained him while investigating his claim. Benatta’s background — an Algerian Muslim and an avionics technician without proper immigration papers — prompted Canada to turn him over to the United States after the terrorist attacks. He was placed in solitary confinement in a New York City jail.
He was initially charged with carrying fraudulent papers until a federal magistrate called those accusations a “sham.” Since then, he has been held for overstaying his visa as he waged a multiyear battle for political asylum in the United States or Canada, alleging he would be killed if he were returned to Algeria.
Government officials have been repeatedly criticized about Benatta’s treatment. In 2003, federal Magistrate Judge H. Kenneth Schroeder Jr. found that Benatta had been “undeniably deprived of his liberty.” Keeping him in prison any longer “would be to join in the charade that had been perpetrated,” he wrote.
Despite the findings, Benatta was kept in jail while he made a claim for U.S. asylum that was ultimately refused. At one point, he was offered release on a $25,000 bond but was unable to pay. Later, when his attorneys sought his release on bond, the government declined.
A spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in New York declined to comment, and a press officer for Canadian immigration officials said privacy laws prohibited her from discussing the case.
An order in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, issued Tuesday, confirmed that Canada had issued Benatta a temporary resident permit “for the purpose of allowing petitioner to enter into Canada to pursue a claim for refugee status in that country.”
Yesterday, Benatta was questioned in Canada and released. Canadian officials have essentially agreed to turn the clock back to Sept. 5, 2001. His attorneys contend that it was unlawful for Canadian officials to hand Benatta over to the United States, and they say this week’s action is an acknowledgment that mistakes were made in 2001.
“Obviously, there is enormous relief,” said Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees, who got involved in the case a year ago and has been negotiating with Canadian officials. “But I am extremely bitter that five years of a person’s life can be taken away.”
Dench said Benatta deserves compensation, but that his first thoughts will be asylum. “There is no guarantee he will be accepted,” she said.