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Weil, Gotshal & Manges Helps Win Landmark Settlement for Abused Post-9/11 Prisoner

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

  • Organization: Weil, Gotshal & Manges
When Mamoni Bhattacharyya accepted an offer to work as an associate at Weil, Gotshal & Manges, one of the country's largest and most well-respected corporate law firms, she knew her professional life would grow and change.

But nothing could have prepared her for the challenges of a pro bono case involving torture on American soil.

In the fall of 2005, the Urban Justice Center (a NY-based not-for-profit legal services organization) contacted the firm's Pro Bono Department about a civil rights case involving two post-9/11 detainees who claimed to have been brutally abused and mistreated while being held in federal custody at the Metropolitan Detention Center ("MDC") in Brooklyn, New York.

One such victim- an Egyptian-Muslim man named Ehab Elmaghraby-was held for a grueling eleven months in a super-maximum security unit of the MDC called the ADMAX SHU, which was specifically used for housing so-called "terrorist" detainees. Like the 700+ Arab and South Asian Muslim men across the country who were arrested after September 11th, charged with minor federal crimes and immigration violations, and treated as terrorists, despite the lack of any evidence showing them to have any connection to terrorism, Mr. Elmaghraby was forced to endure the kind of torture, degradation, and horrendous ill-treatment that no human being should ever be subjected to.

Defenseless in his prison cell during his stay in the ADMAX SHU, Mr. Elmaghraby was beaten by guards, who slammed him into walls and dragged him along the ground in his shackles. Mr. Elmaghraby was also violated by repetitive, needless, and abusive strip searches, isolated in his cell for at least 23 hours a day, threatened by guards, and harassed in his efforts to pray. As if such humiliation and abuse weren't enough, he was also denied adequate medical care. He was eventually deported to Egypt without ever being charged with terrorist activities.

"I had never seen anything like this in my life," said Elmaghraby, who lived in the U.S. for over 10 years and worked as a New York City street vendor and in a restaurant before his arrest.

While post-9/11 prisoner abuse scandals have been widely documented and reported on-namely Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay-the weight of this scandal was that it was the first reported incident of its kind to take place on American soil.

Upon taking the case, the Urban Justice Center and Haeyoung Yoon, the attorney with the Urban Justice Center who represented Elmaghraby, reached out for legal help. He immediately started working with civil rights lawyer Alex Reinert and his firm, Koob & Magoolaghan, and later, David Ball and Mamoni Bhattacharyya of Weil, Gotshal & Manges.

After weeks of negotiations, on February 27, 2006, Elmaghraby was granted a payment of $300,000 to settle his claims against the United States government and federal officials, including former Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller. Though no amount of money could compensate Elmaghraby for the treatment he suffered, he did prevail in becoming the first victim to receive such compensation.

Although a number of defendants, including Ashcroft and Mueller, urged that the plaintiffs' suit be dismissed because their treatment was justified by the needs of law-enforcement after the 9/11 tragedy, US District Court Judge John Gleeson forcefully rejected these arguments in a September 2005 decision.

While Yoon and Reinert's team were instrumental in getting the case to the point where it could settle (most notably getting past the motions to dismiss on immunity grounds), Bhattacharyya's team offered assistance in negotiating the terms of the settlement.

"I never could have imagined how this case would have had such a personal effect on me," said Bhattacharyya. "It's deeply rewarding and gratifying. Talking to our clients and hearing their stories of endurance, pain and strength has been humbling."

For the 33-year-old Bhattacharyya, it has been the most demanding, yet rewarding pro bono case thus far in her legal career. She has worked extensively on this case, and learned to juggle both billable hours as a patent litigator and pro bono hours as a part-time civil rights lawyer. "I treated every hour spent on this case-and especially every encounter with Ehab and the other victims-just as I would for any client," she said.

But she knows the fight is far from over.

Today, Bhattacharyya still balances her workday between litigating patent disputes and working pro bono on a similar case. She is currently continuing her work with Mr. Elmaghraby's co-plaintiff, Javiad Iqbal, a Pakistani man who faced similar abuses at the MDC. Mr. Iqbal's suit, along with a separate class-action lawsuit involving several other detainees, is still pending.

"Hundreds of voiceless victims were victimized by the discriminatory and brutal mistreatment following September 11th," said Bhattacharyya. "My hope is that I can do my part in battling this injustice and bringing justice to those who deserve it. Ehab's settlement was the first to demonstrate to the world that no matter who you are, where you are from, or what the circumstances, abuses such as these will not be accepted in the United States of America."

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