Torture in the USA: Ismail Hakki Avci
SOURCE: DTFDemocratic Turkey Forum
Ismail Hakki Avci tells his story:
I was born in Erzurum (in Eastern Turkey) in 1962, but spent most of my life in Istanbul. In 1989 I went to the USA with a 6-month visa. During these months I got a social security number, but did not renew my visa or apply for work and stay permit. My mother died shortly after my visa expired and I would have gone to Turkey, if my relatives had informed me earlier. But 20 days after her death there was nothing I could do and I decided to stay. In 1990 I was involved in a road accident and my right leg was broken. I was operated and treated in Stony Brook University Hospital. The scars of the operation can still be seen at my foot, because several metal pieces had to be inserted to make my leg stable. The costs for hospital and surgery were met by the insurance for the car. I only recovered very slowly getting up from a wheel chair and using crutches for a long time. For more than one year I was unable to work, which I had done before.
Police officers broke my second leg
On 11 April 1991 I was driving home in New York after a small celebration with a friend, who had opened a shop. I had about three glasses of whiskey. On the way my car broke down and I had to stop at the side of the road. When I realized that I could not repair the car in the middle of the night, I decided to walk about one mile to get home. Then TUM police officers arrived. Firstly they offered help, but probably realized that I was under the influence of alcohol and asked me for my papers. After some time they told me that I was arrested on the grounds of Driving While Intoxicated (DWI). I objected, because they had not stopped me, while driving the car. Now the rough treatment started. I had to step out of the car and they pushed me from the back over the hood. I was handcuffed with the hands on my back. While hitting me the police officers cursed me using words such as “motherfucker”. I asked them not to swear at my family, but the reaction was only more beating and swearing.
I was taken to New York Long Island Minneola Head Quarter Of Police Department. Here things first developed normally. I was put in shackles and asked the officer not to put the shackles too tight on my right foot, which he did. Only the two arresting officers still were upset with me. After several rounds of further cursing I answered back. This tall and heavy officer tried to hit me, but although I was handcuffed and shackled I managed to move my upper body aside and he fell on the desk. This made him ashamed in front of the other officers and even angrier. Now more officers joined in and started to hit me.
Someone pulled the chains of my shackles and I fell on my back. In this position they hit and kicked me and started to drag me over the ground pulling the shackles over quite some distance. A very tall officer was walking in front of me. At one stage he pulled the shackles and took both hands to lift me to a hook behind the door of a larger room.
I was left upside down for about 20 or maybe 30 minutes. Then they let me down and I fell on my head. I realized that I was in a big office with many papers on the desk. After a while a civilian dressed officer came in and I begged him to help me. He came over to me and saw the injuries to both of my feet. This officer left the room shouting at others, what they had done to me. They came in, but none of them admitted to have ill-treated me. They had difficulties in opening the shackles. I was taken to Nassau County Medical Center. Accidentally Dr. Louis Romeo, who had treated my for my right leg, was there on duty. He did not believe what had happened to me, because my left leg was broken, too and the plates in my right leg were not in their places. Yet, Dr. Romeo did not testify in the court case that I later initiated against the police officers.
I stayed in hospital for 4 days, always in company of a police officer, who hindered me from making phone calls by disassembling the receiver. Once several people came and I had the impression that this was a mobile court. I was not asked anything and no defense lawyer was present. After 4 days I was taken back to prison. I was asked three times to dress, because I had to go to a hearing, but each time I came back without appearing in court. Only during the fourth attempt I saw a judge. He just looked at me and started to shout at the police officers. I understood that I was on trial for having resisted officers on duty. The judge agreed that I could not have done it and ordered my release. This happened after some 23 days in prison.
Some time later there was infection in the broken leg. I went to Stony Brook Hospital where I received treatment and the doctor stated that the infection occurred as a result of the tight leg irons. I took this comment as a reason to file an official complaint against the police officers. The trial lasted very long. I was represented by lawyers from the office of Eliot Bloom, Steven Civardi and Marvin Zevin. While the trial continued I was followed by police officers in plainclothes. They threatened me about 15 times to take back my complaint and even went as far as putting a gun to my temple saying that I would be killed if I continued the lawsuit.
The case concluded some time in 1994. Federal Judge Arthur D Spatt offered USD 60,000 as compensation. My lawyers strongly recommended to accept the verdict. So I agreed to USD 60,000 with USD 35,000 being deducted as the fee for the lawyers. I was put on probation for 3 years.
In 1994 I obtained a work permit, which I had to renew every three years. When I discovered that Walter Shelton, the lawyer, who had taken $ 3,000 for this affair, had registered my as a refugee, I went to the immigration office and told them that I had no problems in my home country. I was told that this lawyer had already lost his license, because he had acted in similar manners in many more cases. I was given a proper work permit for another three years.
Trying to make a living
Following my imprisonment I worked for about 3 years at a petrol station (night-shifts) and later bought myself a coffee van. I sold coffee in front of various factories and enterprises in the name of the company that I had founded. It was called IHA (Ismail Hakki Avci) Catering. I did this for about five years until all vendors in that area were ordered to stop their work, because it was not “safe”. The population in that area was predominantly “black”, but I had no problems with anyone of them, whatever their offspring was.
Later I obtained a commercial driver license and worked as a truck driver for the Fed Ex. Custom Critical Department. On 14 February 2001 I opened a grocery store. I wanted to name it “El Hakk Turkish Food Store”. At this stage I should mention that I have taken my name from my grandfather, who was called Ismail. He also suggested putting Hakki to it, since Allah had blessed the family with the first son, after two daughters. When opening the shop I felt that I had to thank Allah for having found that place and took one of the 99 names of Allah as the name. On the other hand you might as well translate the name as “el” (hand) and “hak” (right).
When I went to register the store the ladies there told me that they would not accept this name. They offered names such as “Ismail” or “Hakki”, but I objected. Since they insisted on a change of name I finally agreed to name the shop “Anatolian Food Store”. I was given the forms and told that my accountant should fill it in. When I told my accountant what had happened, she got angry and called the civil servants “racists”. She insisted to accompany me the next day and we had the same discussion again. Only after a fourth (elderly) woman intervened, we could solve the problem. This lady was of Jewish background. I remember her name to be Tony. Her predecessors had come from Spain to take refuge in Turkey. She said that she had known Spanish and Turkish at a young age and asked me what the words meant in Turkish. I told her and she instructed the others to register the shop under the name that I had suggested.
My shop went well and I had all sorts of customers, not only the Turks living in the area. There were many people, who liked Mediterranean food. In my small shop a radio station was switched on that was constantly playing music. One day the music was interrupted and I heard something about the attack on the Towers. I closed my shop and went over to a neighbor with TV. We saw, when the second plane crashed into the second Tower. We were shocked and thought about offering ourselves as blood donors, but when we realized that the population had turned against all Muslims, we were too afraid to go to a hospital. After September 11 only very few customers would come to my store. From time to time, men and also one woman, whom I believed to be FBI agents came in and, usually without buying much, started to talk to me about my beliefs and political views. I frankly told them my strong opposition to the attack on the Towers, stressing that true Muslims would not have done it. Since my business became worse I offered the wholesale provider of my goods to run the shop. He wanted to change the name to “Yayla Quality Food Store” and we put up a different sign. However, even before the person had got official permission he returned the store after about two months stating that he could not pay the installments because he could not make any profit.
DETENTION, TREATMENT IN PRISON and DEPORTATION
1. On 19 or 20 March 2002 about 5 or 6 FBI agents raided my house at around 5-5.30am. I was alone at my house. No search or arrest warrant was shown to me. They didn’t tell me anything about the accusations against me. They answered my questions saying that I would be informed later. They didn’t inform me about my legal rights. My demands to call a friend and a lawyer were rejected. I was stripped naked in my house.
They searched the whole house, while I was waiting in my boxer shorts. Later they asked me what kind of clothes I wanted to wear and got it one by one, after inspecting it thoroughly. They inspected my wallet and took out the driver license and other documents. I told them that I would need them and they answered: “Not where you are going.” I did not see that the officers took money from my wallet, but after my deportation to Turkey I sent a close friend of mine to my home to get some private documents and goods. He informed me that my money (US$ 6,000 in the closet and US $1,750 in my wallet) was gone. Among my personal documents I only got the driving license and a few papers back. Therefore, I cannot document my work permit and other things that happened to me in the time before. The owner of the house where I lived, Riyaz Ahmed, saw me while I was taken to the police car in handcuffs.
2. I was taken to 26 Federal Plaza in Manhattan. I was constantly kicked and beaten. They all swore at me. I was not informed about the accusation about me. They didn’t say anything about my legal rights. My demands for informing a friend and a lawyer were not accepted. I asked that the Turkish Consulate should be informed, but apparently that was not done. At this stage there was no medical examination.
I went through a first interrogation at the Federal Plaza. I was chained to the bench that I sat on and an officer opposite to me behind a desk with a computer asked me about membership to organizations such as Al Qaeda, Hamas, Hizbullah, Jihad Islami and PKKKurdish Workers' Party . I told him that I had heard the names, but had no connections to them whatsoever. The officers showed me some pictures and asked me if I knew these people. There were colored people and several people with strong beards. I had seen none of them and this kind of people had not been among the customers of my store. I was interrogated for about two hours. This officer told me that they used chains as a precaution, because a Russian prisoner had used the opportunity to jump put of the window.
The formalities lasted the whole day, including the taking of my fingerprints. For most of the time, but at least three hours I was kept in a cold room with a concrete floor. At dusk I was taken to New Jersey Middlesex County Adult Correctional Center together with two Pakistanis.
3. At the entrance of the prison I was told to undress and put on given clothes. They asked me what color I liked and I said it could be any color. They asked me whether I liked “red”, because of the red color in the Turkish flag and I said “yes”. I was given red clothes, while other prisoners, who may have been ordinary prisoners, were given green clothes. I was taken to a health unit, where only one nurse was present. She injected something to my arm, which might have been against tuberculosis.
After that I was taken to a room that resembled a toilet with showers. I was asked to undress and had a little argument, when they asked me to take down my underwear as well, but I finally did what they wanted. I was handcuffed and shackled with the arms being tied to the waist by another chain. In this position they squirted pressurized cold water on me for a long while. The pressure of the water made me fall down. Still being naked I was beaten and almost lost consciousness. After about half an hour lying naked on the concrete floor I was asked to get dressed. To do this the handcuffs and shackles were removed, but put on again, after I had got dressed.
The room with boxes
4. Finally I was taken to a room with four iron boxes at one side. I was asked to look in the direction of the boxes and they pushed me inside. I could not stand up in this box. I could feel the walls with my shoulders and not sit down. I reckon that the boxes measured 1.4 meter in height and about 1 meter in width and depth. I do not know how the boxes were closed, but I was unable to push it open. Each time the box was opened I heard a sound that might have come from bars.
The room where these boxes were kept was very big. I cannot tell exactly but both the length and the width of the room were some 10 meters and the height was about 3 to 4 meters. I think that the other boxes were empty during the time that I stayed there. I believe that these boxes were made from very thick iron covered with rust both inside and outside. I was taken out of the box at intervals that I estimate to be three hours. I could either lie down or sit for periods between 30 to maybe 45 minutes. Only on very few occasions the officers “forgot” me and I could stretch for more than an hour, even though I was still chained.
Twice a day I got something to eat. To do so I was taken out of the box. Although I could not eat much, I managed to get the food to my mouth, either lying on the ground or sitting, because the chains around the waist had some room for movement. Many times I remember that food dropped from my mouth.
Every time I was taken out of the box I was beaten, and they poured water on my head, maybe because they wanted me to get my senses back. But the beating was so bad that I didn’t want to leave the box, but in return was beaten even more severely. After locking me in the box they always turned off the lights of the hall. Because of the pressure of the shackles on the plates in my legs I suffered very intense pain. The box was the most painful torture that I faced during my detention period.
I don’t remember how many days I stayed in the box. No daylight reached the room and I couldn’t notice if it was daytime or nighttime. It must have been several days, with a minimum of maybe 4 and a maximum of maybe 7 days.
5. My days in the box ended, when one day I completely fainted and found myself in a cell sized approximately 2.5 x 3 meters with a bunk bed and a toilet. The cell had an iron door with a window sized 40x40 cm. When I was able to get up I realized that I was in a two-story place with many cells in each story. During the first day I did not hear or see any other prisoners and believe to have been on my own. Later the place got more crowded.
At night with an order to go to bed the lights were turned off. In this section prisoners were not allowed to speak to the prisoners in the next cell or to speak loudly. The ones who did not obey were taken “away”. About 10 officers would storm into the cell and tear the prisoner out yelling that he was going “to the boxes”. None of them returned and, therefore, I do not know whether they were taken to the same boxes, where my torments started.
In this section prisoners had meals in common areas 3 times a day. While in the food line prisoners would be beaten up for any kind of reason, e.g. not properly standing in line. I was beaten many times.
A few times I had the opportunity to get an appointment with the doctor. I told the doctors about torture and ill treatment. But they didn’t do anything. I suffered serious pain but was not even given a painkiller. The doctor, who examined me, was a thin tall man from India around 50 years of age. There was usually a female nurse in the doctor’s office. I told the doctor that I was beaten. I stated that the leg chains pressed on the plates in my leg and explained it to him by drawing where the plates in my leg were. The doctor stated that there was nothing he could do. The nurses in the examination room also saw the marks on my body, which occurred because of beating.
I also had pain in my stomach, but all I got were pills with the name of “Zontac”. I got them at night so that I could sleep. During one of my visits to the doctor’s office, a doctor or a man I thought to be a technician took my chest x-ray. Many times, I and other prisoners were ill-treated on the way to the doctor. Once I witnessed that a prisoner from India prisoner was terribly beaten in the corridor.
INTERROGATIONS6. I believe that I was interrogated 7 or 8 times. Twice I was taken for interrogation after the order to go to bed was given. It was approximately 11pm. While going to the interrogation room, you go out to the corridor, but do not turn right to the health unit. The place of interrogation
Once I saw the interrogation room, because usually the plastic bag over my head was not removed during interrogation. On the left against the wall and across the door were two long benches and to the right was a metal table with four chairs. The voices told me that during the interrogation they sometimes sat on the benches and sometimes on the chairs. Strip lights from above illuminated the room.
Two people, whom I thought to be FBI agents in plain clothes, usually conducted the interrogations. At least in one case a woman was present, because I heard the sound of high-heeled shoes. Prison officers in dark blue clothes brought me to the room. Before entering they would put a grey or dark plastic bag over my head. I would believe that the bags resembled very much bags used in dustbins. In the room they would fasten my handcuffs to a chair or a bench.
During all the interrogation my head was covered with a bag and I had difficulty breathing. The interrogators would arrive 5-10 minutes after my head was covered. At times they would beat me arbitrarily. These beatings were very bad, because you do not know where the blows come from and which part of your body will be hit. Several times I had the impression that my brains were about to leave my head. Usually they hesitated hitting my face but they hit me on all parts of my body including my head and neck. Many times I fell on the floor during the interrogation. In this position I would be kicked and beaten again. They continuously insulted and threatened me.
The content of the interrogations was very much the same as at the Federal Plaza in Manhattan. I was asked about membership to organizations such as Al Qaeda, Hamas, Hizbullah, Jihad Islami and PKK. I told the officers that I had heard the names, but had no connections to them. They also asked my about my opinion on issues such as the policy of Israel and I said that I did not know much about it.
They seemed to know much about me, for instance the places where I served in the Turkish Armed Forces and even tried me with question such as “how many jumps (with a parachute) did you make?” Whenever they said that I should confess, because they knew everything I asked for evidence: “Tell me, what you know, what I have done wrong”, but did not get an answer.
THE FINAL DAYS
7. After about two weeks in the single cell, I was put in a section the prisoners called “Dom” (maybe “Dome”) or “population”. I was interrogated two times during my stay here. I stayed about 10 or 15 days in this 3-story building. There were about 250-300 people in the building and each story was a big room with many beds. All prisoners here wore red clothes. During the day the prisoners were either forced to sit on their beds or stand up in front of their bunks. We had 3 meals a day for half an hour. We were not allowed to talk to one another except during the half hour meal period.
Some days we were allowed to move and talk freely for nearly 3 hours. During these times we were permitted to enter a basketball area. However these permissions were arbitrary. Sometimes it was closed for a few days. In the “Dom” there was a police officer named West who was thin, slight and around 40 years of age. He was very good to prisoners. This person has never beaten me. Having heard about my health problems he even called the doctor and later came to check whether I was sleeping on the lower bed of the bunk because the doctor had told him that I should sleep on the lower bed because of the problems in my legs.
In the “Dom” I had the chance of making calls. I made about 8-10 collect calls and thus could inform my friends. By the help of my friend Ayhan Kurt a lawyer named Iskender Cemalettin visited me a few days before my deportation. I told him about the torture and ill-treatment that I had experienced. He said he would work on the subject, but also informed me that there was a decision to deport me. I asked him to prevent this.
Two people from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) (address and telephone number of this organization: 125 Broad Street NY 10001-2100, Tel: 212 549 2620) visited the prison and interviewed two Syrians. However I was unable to meet them. I got a card from them and they promised to come back in a week and talk to me. But I was deported before I had a chance to speak to them.
8. It was either on 23 or 24 April, when I was told that I would be released and that I should change my prison clothes to my private dresses. In the same place at the entrance of the prison where I had changed my clothes on entering prison I was beaten again for being slow while changing my clothes.
They beat me and forcibly took of my clothes. Later, I was taken to New Jersey Federal Plaza by a great number of armed FBI agents. One of them made a sign of a rising plane and said “your are going to fly”. I understood that they did not want to release, but to deport me. My demand to call my lawyer or a friend was not accepted.
At the Federal Plaza I was kept in a room with several civil servants. I didn’t go through a doctor’s examination and did not get any papers stating the reason for my deportation. Later I was taken to JFK airport escorted by police cars. On the way to the airport I could see the area, where my house and shop was situated. I felt a deep pain and thought to myself whether this was the end of it. I had arrived in the States about 13 years ago. I had been a healthy young man with some 7 to 8 thousand dollars in my pocket. My home and shop and the car that I had parked outside was in reach, but I would never see anything of it again.
There were two FBI officers in my car, one around 40-45 years of age and the other 30. One of them originated from the Philippines and the other one belonged to the original inhabitants of America. They wanted to know the reason for my sorrow. I hesitated, but then briefly told them, what had been going through my mind. Later the “Indian guy” looked at me for a long time and then he said: “Look I have never done anything like this during all the 18 (maybe he said 13) years that I am in this job. But you seem to be a good man. I shall let you make one phone call and, if the person you call is able to come here in half an hour, he can bring you some money. He promised that the person would not be detained or tortured and even gave me the quarter dollar to make the call.
I called my friend Ayhan Kurt and told him to bring me all the money he had got on him. Before I got on the plane I received US$ 500 via the police officers. This is the only money that I brought from the USA. The “Indian officer” made sure that I would not be handcuffed during the flight, where I was accompanied by two officers, who sat at different places. In Istanbul we were the latest to leave the plane. Turkish police officers met us, grabbed the files in the hand of one FBI agent and told them to go a different way. One officer told me: “Look at them. They are trying to tell us, how to treat prisoners.” I was taken to the police station at the airport. The police received my statement and released me after an hour, as there were no accusations against me. The police told me to apply to the Human Rights Association and Human Rights Foundation of Turkey for treatment and to ask for my legal rights in the USA. However although I had bruises on my body they did not recommend a medical examination and I didn’t go through an examination.
As soon as I was released I went to my family. Due to depression I did not leave the house for a long time. With the encouragements of my sister I went to the Human Rights Association on 4 July. They recorded my testimony and told me to apply to the Human Rights Foundation, Istanbul Office. I got an appointment for 8 August 2002. I am still under medical treatment at the Human Rights Foundation.
I want everybody responsible for what happened to me to be brought to justice and ask for compensation from the authorities. Even though my deportation was illegal, I am not willing to go back to a country, where human rights count nothing.
Ismail Hakki Avci