JOHANNESBURG – Ninety-two Somalis sat bound and shackled on an airplane for nearly two days, some urinating on themselves, during a botched U.S. deportation attempt, a class-action lawsuit filed in the United States says.
U.S. immigration agents "kicked, struck, choked and dragged detainees" during the journey that began Dec. 7, the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Miami says. Some of the Somalis were put in straitjackets.
The flight to Somalia from Louisiana reached Dakar, Senegal before sitting on the runway for 23 hours and returning to the U.S. because the relief crew was not rested enough, the lawsuit says.
Lawyers are alarmed that the U.S. is returning a growing number of people to a country that has long been a war zone. "It is not safe for these men and women to return, especially in light of the escalation of terrorist violence in Somalia in the last weeks," said Rebecca Sharpless, director of the immigration clinic at the University of Miami School of Law, which filed the lawsuit.
The Somalia-based al-Shabab extremist group was blamed for the massive truck bombing in the capital, Mogadishu, that killed 512 in October. Only a few attacks since 9/11 have killed more people. Al-Shabab, the deadliest Islamic extremist group in Africa and the target of more than 30 U.S. airstrikes under the Trump administration, holds large parts of rural southern and central Somalia.
A year-end report by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement says 521 Somalis were deported this year, up sharply from 198 last year. Somalia by far saw the largest number of citizens deported home among African nations.
"It was not until the very end of 2016 and into 2017 that ICE sought for the first time to detain and then remove Somalis in larger numbers using charter flights," the lawsuit says.
ICE does not comment on pending lawsuits and has denied mistreating the Somalis on the failed deportation flight this month. It also has said more than 60 of the Somalis had criminal convictions.
The lawsuit says U.S. immigration law forbids sending people home to countries where they could face persecution or torture, and that al-Shabab is known to target those being returned to Somalia from the U.S.
On Tuesday evening, a U.S. District judge ruled that ICE cannot remove the Somalis and set a hearing for Jan. 2, Sharpless said.
"If the judge had not issued the order they would have been deported this morning," she said in an email to The Associated Press on Wednesday. "We are relieved and thankful that the judge acted in time."
The Somalis, with family ties in Minnesota and elsewhere around the U.S., are being held in two detention centers in South Florida.
There was no immediate comment from Somalia's government.