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Originally published August 24, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified August 24, 2007 at 2:09 AM

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Feds apologize for Iraqi refugee's detention

An Iraqi refugee living in Kent has received a written apology and $250,000 from the U.S. government after federal border and customs agents...

Seattle Times staff reporter

An Iraqi refugee living in Kent has received a written apology and $250,000 from the U.S. government after federal border and customs agents illegally jailed him in 2003.

Yet Abdul Habeeb and his attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) remain fiercely at odds with the government over whether Habeeb was a victim of racial profiling when he was improperly arrested in Havre, Mont., in April 2003.

Jesse Wing, board president of the ACLU of Washington, said in a news release: "The settlement is a strong reminder that the government must not engage in ethnic profiling."

Jeffrey Sullivan, the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Washington, countered that the ACLU mischaracterized Habeeb's case.

"This settlement has nothing to do with racial profiling," Sullivan said. "I believe the officers had a good reason to contact Mr. Habeeb beyond how he looked."

Sullivan said federal agents acted in good faith, but incorrectly, when they concluded that Habeeb had violated immigration laws.

The issue is an extremely sensitive one in the Puget Sound area at the moment.

Muslim- and Arab-American leaders have expressed outrage that the FBI this week released photos of two men, who appear to be of Middle Eastern descent, who the agency claimed were acting suspiciously around Washington state ferries. The FBI hopes to identify the two men by publicizing their photos.

Some have accused the FBI of racial profiling by releasing the photos.

Kathleen Taylor, executive director of the ACLU of Washington, expressed concern about the release of the ferry photos during a news conference Thursday to discuss Habeeb's settlement.

"There is a principle that applies in both cases," said Taylor. "The government should focus not on what people look like, but on suspicious conduct. In [Habeeb's] case there was no suspicious conduct."

What is not in dispute is that Abdul Habeeb should not have been arrested April 1, 2003.

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At the time of his arrest, Habeeb was taking a train from Seattle to Washington, D.C., where he planned to take a new job as a journalist.

When the train made an extended stop in Havre, Habeeb, who is an artist, took a walk to stretch his legs and to see if any local art was on display in the station.

Once inside, Habeeb said Thursday, he noticed a man in a uniform and a cowboy hat watching him. Eager to avoid trouble, Habeeb said he turned to walk away from the agent, but the agent followed him and questioned him.

The questioning became more severe, Habeeb said, after he disclosed that he was an Iraqi refugee, even though Habeeb provided documentation proving his legal status.

Habeeb was held for three days in Montana and then transferred to a federal detention center in Tacoma, where he spent four more nights. Then, with no explanation, he was released.

"[The guard] tried to cover something wrong," Habeeb said. "He told me just go home, away, hurry up."

With the assistance of the ACLU, Habeeb filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Montana against border and customs agents Thomas Castloo and Dary Essing, claiming unreasonable search and a violation of his due-process rights.

He also filed a suit in U.S. District Court in Western Washington against the federal government for unlawful detention. He sought more than $600,000 in damages.

The Montana lawsuit was dismissed by a federal judge, but the ACLU appealed the decision to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

During the appeal, Sullivan said, the government concluded "that the detention of Mr. Habeeb was incorrect."

The Border Patrol agents detained Habeeb because they thought he had failed to register with immigration officials as required by a regulation known as the National Security Entry/Exit Registration System (NSEERS), according to the settlement and the apology letter.

The detention was improper because as a refugee, the documents say, he was exempt from the NSEERS requirements.

"The United States of America acknowledges that, by not registering ... you did nothing wrong," Sullivan wrote in the apology. "The United States of America regrets the mistake."

Neither the settlement agreement nor the apology mentions racial or ethnic profiling.

Yet ACLU attorneys insisted Thursday that racial profiling is the only explanation for the injustices suffered by Habeeb.

"It is a story that clearly points out the failings of government programs that target people for their looks," Taylor said.

Seattle Times staff reporter Jennifer Sullivan contributed to this report.

David Bowermaster: 206-464-2724 or dbowermaster@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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