(CN) – A class action claims immigration agents kept 92 Somali nationals shackled and handcuffed for over two days on a chartered plane during a botched deportation attempt in early December.
According to the federal lawsuit filed in Miami on Dec. 16, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency “kicked, struck, choked and dragged detainees” over the course of journey that began in Louisiana on Dec. 7 but only got as far as Dakar, Senegal.
There, the complaint says, the plane sat on an airport tarmac for 23 hours before returning to the United States because the relief crew was not rested enough.
“As the plane sat on the runway, the 92 detainees remained bound, their handcuffs secured to their waists, and their feet shackled together,” the complaint says. “When the plane’s toilets overfilled with human waste, some of the detainees were left to urinate into bottles or on themselves.
“ICE agents wrapped some who protested, or just stood up to ask a question, in full-body restraints,” the complaint continues. “ICE agents kicked, struck, or dragged detainees down the aisle of the plane, and subjected some to verbal abuse and threats.”
”We heard over and over from the detainees who we interviewed that they cried out to the guards and agents on the plane, ‘we are human beings,’ said Lisa Lehner, a Senior Litigation Attorney at the Americans for Immigrant Justice organization.
After the flight returned to the U.S. on Dec. 9, the Somali nationals were taken to two South Florida detention centers to await another attempt to toss them from the country.
On Tuesday night a federal judge ruled immigration officials can’t remove the Somalis until their complaint gets a hearing. The judge scheduled that hearing for Jan. 2.
The class, which is represented by Rebecca Sharpless of the Immigration Clinic in the University of Miami School of Law, says its plight has been the subject of intense international press coverage, and that if deported, it is at risk of being targets by al-Shebaab, a jihadist group based in East Africa.
The plaintiffs claim al-Shebaab perceives Somalis who return to the country after living in western nations for long periods of time as enemies and threats to their cause.
“It is as though the United States, through ICE has put a bulls’ eye on each of these individuals, so when they step off the plane, they are targets for terrorists,” Lehner said.
Al-Shebaab is suspected of being behind an Oct. 14 bomb attack in Mogadischu that killed over 500 people. In retaliation, the United States launched a series of bombing raids targeting al-Shebaab strongholds.
U.S. law prohibits the deportation of individuals to countries where they could face political persecution or torture.
“Yet despite the clear danger that plaintiffs/petitioners and the class they represent now face in Somalia, ICE is attempting to deport them based on removal orders that do not take account of the danger created by the media coverage of the December 7 flight and recent escalation of violence in Somalia,” the complaint says.
The class contends that under the circumstances, it may be eligible for asylum, which is a “discretionary form of relief from persecution that is available to noncitizens who can demonstrate that they have a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion.”
Immigration and Customs Enforcement denied it subjected anyone to mistreatment during the flight, and said that while the detainees were in the aircraft, they had sufficient food and water, and that the bathrooms were in good working condition.
Plaintiffs and the class are seeking injunctive and declaratory relief to avoid their deportation to Somalia under claims of prohibition on removal to countries where individuals could face persecution and/or torture.