The federal government is threatening an official at a Brooklyn jail with imprisonment if he gives legal assistance to several Muslim men who are suing over their detention following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

The guard who received the unusual warning, Steven Barrere, is currently a defendant in a prison abuse suit brought by six Muslim men and a Hindu once held at the federal Metropolitan Detention Center. The men, since deported, are suing prison guards for allegedly beating them up, as well as Attorney General Ashcroft and other top officials for allegedly orchestrating their harsh treatment.

Mr. Barrere, a mid-level officer at the MDC who is accused of pushing the detainees and tripping them while they were in shackles, is in settlement discussions. In return for the suit’s dismissal, Mr. Barrere would “discuss what he observed concerning the plaintiffs,” his lawyer, James Ryan, wrote to the court. That offer drew a stern warning from the government. Depending on its terms, a settlement could prompt the government to file charges against Mr. Barrere, a Justice Department attorney, Stephen Handler, wrote in a letter last week.

A federal law bars federal employees from providing certain assistance in lawsuits against the federal government, although the law is not commonly invoked as an obstacle to settlements.

“The letter did seem a sort of “‘watch your back’ if you cooperate with the other side,” an attorney for the former detainees, Matthew Strugar, said in reference to the government’s position.


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