All 192 Iranian demonstrators jailed in Otisville, N.Y., and at a federal facility in Manhattan were released last night after they broke a 10-day silence and gave U.S. immigration agents their names.
The decisions by the Immigration and Naturalization Service to release the supporters of the Iranian leader, Aytollah Ruhollah Khomeini, came after U.S. immigration officials verified that the protestors had given their correct names and that they were in this country legally.
Their release removes what, in recent days had become a chief propaganda claim by Khomeini -- that the jailed Iranian demonstrators were no different than the American hostages who were seized by Iranian militants in Tehran Nov. 4 and that the Iranians were being tortured in the New York jailed.
In its review of the names of the protestors and their claims to be legitimately living in the United States, the INS said it found that only two -- an unidentified man and woman -- violated their status as aliens. But both were released after they posted bond to ensure they later would appear before an INS judge hearing their deportation cases.
"We would have released each one of them the moment we verified their status," said Vern Jervis, an INS spokesman. "But they all wanted to be released en masse."
Jervis said that for a time "there were indications" that the Iranians being held at Otisville might refuse to leave the prison if one of their number being held on a felony charge was not freed with them.
But that charge, assault on a police officer, was dropped last night, Jervis said, and the Iranian, Mahmoud Safiri, was freed along with the others.
After release of the Iranian men from the Otisville facility, the INS arranged for four buses to take them the 65 miles to New York City, where they joined the 20 Iranian women who had been held there in a prayer service at a mosque in Queens.
As they arrived at the mosque, the Iranians were met by a band of supporters carrying a large poster of Khomeini, and a jerring group of about 50 neighborhood residents. Reporters were barred from the service, which was still under way early today.
The INS had offered to bus the Iranians to Washington after the service, but members of the group said they intended to remain at the mosque overnight and then disperse.
Mark Lane, the New Orleans attorney representing the Iranians jailed at Otisville, said the young men had to be released "because they were kidnapped." When asked where the Iranians would eventually go, Lane responded, "To their homes. They live in America."
The impasse about the demonstrators' fate was broken sometime late Monday, Jervis said, when attorneys for the protesters agreed to obtain their names in return for their prompt release. The Iranians then provided their names, the names of the schools they were attending or their employer, the day and place of their entry into the United States and the date and place of their birth.
"I can tell you," Jervis said, "none of them are from the Washington area. They are mainly from the West and Midwest, and virtually all are students."
The discovery that all of the Iranians came from outside the Washington area, and that all but two were legally in the U.S., combined with a report that one woman demonstrator had told investigators that all had been handpicked for arrest prior to the demonstration fueled the fears of law enforcement officials that the demonstration was carefully orchestrated to embarrass the United States.
"I can't imagine that many people getting arrested without a good percentage being out-of-status; it's too phenomenal to be coincidence," said one INS official.
Of the estimated 50,000 Iranians in this country, some 20 to 25 percent are out-of-status, which means that they are here illegally, he said.
Others have noted that none of the demonstrators carried identification when they were arrested, and that their refusal to give names, then to go on a hunger strike and finally to cooperate en masse, appeared to be part of a plan.
Another attorney for the Iranians said last night that these "conspiracy theories" were the product of officials "trying to cover up their own misconduct.
"It was wrong for police to wade into (the demonstrators during the violent July 27 demonstration here), wrong to set $250 bond, wrong for a forceful transfer to INS, wrong to keep women handcuffed and tied around the legs while their lawyers beat on the door for admittance," the attorney said.
Abbas Esfahani, a spokesman for the Moslem Students Association (Persian Speaking Group), to which the 192 jailed demonstrators belong, said last night that they had refused to give their names "to protest their illegal and unjustifiable and barbaric treatment and arrest."
He said the demonstrators had been aware from the beginning that once they gave their names they would be released but had chosen to remain in jail as a continuation of the protest.
Most of the released Iranians were to return to Washington today and join an ongoing demonstration in front of the White House, he said.
Law enforcement officials fear the prospect of more demonstrations like the earlier one that led to the arrest of the 192 Iranians. Four more demonstrations are planned here for Thursday and Friday by pro-Khomeini groups.
"We're concerned that these things put us in a can't win situation," said one senior federal law enforcement official. "They get in jail, go on a hunger strike and become martyrs. Are you drawing greater attention to them by arresting them? Are you doing what they want you to do? On the other hand, it seems as if you just can't walk away from violations of the law."
There is talk at upper levels of the INS about simply refusing to accept custody of Iranian demonstrators arrested by local police in an effort to avoid such occurrences, a source said. The State Department, as well, is known to be worried that such arrests and detentions of Iranians only worsens the American hostage situation in Iran.
But the refusal to prosecute also affects the morale of the front-line INS investigators one source said.
"How many strikes before you're out?" asked one investigator. "They've all violated immigration laws about being truthful [to INS officials], and now we won't deport them. They're all going to go free."
For their part, the demonstrators have claimed they were subject to D.C. police brutality during the July 27 demonstration, as well as during their arrest processing and confinement under INS supervision.
Khomeini, speaking from Tehran Monday, accused the United States of subjecting the prisoners to "torture," and that message sparked new anti-American demonstrations in Iran.
D.C. police and federal corrections officials have adamantly denied that any Iranian prisoner has been mistreated.
J. Michael Quinlan, the prison warden in Otisville, yesterday invited six clergymen, including two Muslims, to visit the prisoners in an attempt to refute the brutality charges.
"We saw no physical bruises, no signs of them being physically mistreated," said Imam Nuriddin Faiz of the American Muslim Mission.
"They did have complaints about their previous treatment," Faiz said. "They said in Washington they were mistreated."
The Iranians began their hunger strike at D.C. Jail shortly after their arrests, and four more of the men suffered the efforts of it at Otisville yesterday before the general release. Quinlan said the four were carried to the prison hospital on stretchers and were treated for malnutrition and dehydration. One of them had stopped breathing and had to be revived with mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, he said. All were declared fit enough last night to be released, however.
The 192 Iranians ended up in the Otisville facility and the Manhattan prison after D.C. police dropped disorderly conduct charges against them stemming from the demonstration and transferred custody of them to the INS. The Otisville prison was selected because it had enough room to accommodate the 172 men, while the federal facility in Manhattan was large enough to hold the 20 women.
In the wake of the charges of police brutality, D.C. police officials said last week they were launching an inquiry. But yesterday they said the look into the allegations would be more of a "critique" than an investigation and would take some time to complete.
Meanwhile, the American Civil Liberties Union expressed doubts that the police could impartially investigate themselves and urged D.C. Mayor Marion Barry to conduct an independent public investigation of the allegations.
Yesterday's scheduled demonstration by a pro-Khomeini group, calling itself the Muslim Community of Washingtion, failed to materialize after a mixup in scheduling, D.C. police said.
About 20 police officers and a battery of news media representatives were on hand at the Islamic Center on Massachusetts Avenue in Northwest Washington for the start of the march at noon to the Justice Deparment, but no demonstrators showed up.
The Muslim Community of Washington and three other groups, all apparently pro-Khomeini, applied to U.S. park Police and D.C. Police yesterday for permits to demonstrate on Thursday and Friday.