More than 90 Somali men and women were subjected to "inhumane conditions and egregious abuse" on a failed deportation flight that lasted nearly 48 hours and was eventually forced to return to the United States earlier this month, according to a class-action lawsuit filed this week.
Ninety-two Somali nationals were being deported by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to Somalia from the US state of Louisiana on December 7 when their flight made a stop in Dakar, Senegal.
But the flight never reached Somalia and was forced to return to the US on December 9.
"For more than two days, ICE agents subjected Petitioners to inhumane conditions and mistreatments including acts of serious physical violence that resulted in still untreated injuries," the lawsuit, which was filed in US District Court, reads.
The plaintiffs, Somali asylum seekers who are currently being held in immigration detention in South Florida, are asking the court to issue an order preventing their deportation to Somalia.
According to the claim, for the duration of the nearly 48-hour journey, which included 23 hours on the runway in Senegal, the deportees said they were forced by ICE agents to "stay seated and chained at their wrists, ankles, and waists".
"When the flight was in Dakar for 23 hours, ICE officers and contract guards beat, kicked, choked, pushed, straightjacketed, threatened to kill, and berated people on the plane," it continues.
ICE and contract guards on the plane also stopped the deportees from accessing the toilet, the lawsuit alleges, "forcing people to try to urinate in bottles or on themselves".
"ICE agents wrapped some who protested, or just stood up to ask a question, in full-body restraints. ICE agents kicked, struck, or dragged detainees down the aisle of the plane, and subjected some to verbal abuse and threats," the lawsuit states.
ICE denies allegations
ICE has denied the allegations of "mistreated onboard the Somali flight as patently false", according to a statement released at the time and included in the lawsuit.
"No one was injured during the flight, and there were no incidents or altercations that would have caused any injuries on the flight," ICE reportedly said.
The agency said the plane landed in Senegal for refuelling and to change pilots. "The aircraft, including the detainees and crew on board, remained parked at the airport to allow the relief crew time to rest," the agency said.
While it remained parked, air conditioning remained in use on the plane, the ICE statement continued.
"Detainees were fed at regular intervals to include the providing of extra snacks and drinks. Lavatories were functional and serviced the entire duration of the trip."
Under the purview of the US Department of Homeland Security, ICE is responsible for issues of immigration detention and deportation, among other functions.
Beatings and abuse
ICE's protestations are in sharp contrast to testimonies from passengers who were aboard the flight.
"After about 20 hours, I stood up and asked what was going on and why we were waiting," said Farah Ali Ibrahim, an asylum seeker and a named plaintiff in the lawsuit, in a statement.
"An officer grabbed me by the collar, and I fell to the floor. Officers began dragging me down the aisle and beating me."
ICE agents later put Ibrahim in a straitjacket, he said.
Legal experts working on behalf of the plaintiffs say the US has an international obligation not to deport them because their safety in Somalia cannot be guaranteed.
In October, a devastating bombing in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, killed at least 358 people and injured hundreds more.
The failed deportation flight has drawn attention to the asylum seekers and may leave them open to abuse upon their return, according to Rebecca Sharpless, director of the immigration clinic at the University of Miami Law School, which filed the lawsuit on behalf of the asylum seekers.
"The December 7 flight has received widespread media coverage in Somalia. Everyone knows they are coming," Sharpless said in a statement.
"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."
The case is "an emergency" because ICE intends to deport the asylum seekers from the US as early as today, according to the statement.