Wednesday, 20 November 2019

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Muslim civil rights group [#CAIR / CAIR-Florida] celebrates landmark court victory as ‘terror watchlist’ declared unconstitutional

By Austen Erblat, For South Florida Sun Sentinel, On 06 September 2019, Read Original
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After almost 20 years and countless controversial secret programs launched by the U.S. Government in the War on Terror, a federal judge concluded in a historic decision this week that the secret government watchlisting process known as the “Terrorist Screening Database” was unconstitutional and violated the rights of countless people, including American citizens.

A lawsuit filed by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR, included 23 Muslim-American plaintiffs, who have described undergoing intense screening when traveling through airports or other ports of entry. They alleged that the watchlisting program labeled people as “known or suspected terrorists,” even when those people have never been accused or convicted of committed a crime, a view supported by Judge Anthony J. Trenga of U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia.

“I’ve literally never been so happy,” Hassan Shibly, a plaintiff in the lawsuit and attorney at CAIR Florida, which has offices in Fort Myers, Orlando, Panama Beach, Sunrise and Tampa, said at a press conference Thursday. “For the last 15 years, I and millions of Americans like me, have been treated like second-class citizens by the government and yesterday the court vindicated us. The court said what we’ve been saying all along, what I’ve personally been saying to [Department of Homeland Security] and [U.S. Customs and Border Protection] and the White House and Congress for the last 15 years — that how DHS has been treating Muslim-Americans when they travel is unconstitutional, is un-American, is unjust, is oppressive.”

According to the judge, the watchlist — which is used to build other lists such as the “no-fly list” — includes roughly 1.2 million people as of 2017, with about 4,600 of them being U.S. citizens or green card holders.

The full 32-page court decision may be viewed at TinyURL.com/WatchlistOpinion.

As revelations about these programs have made their way to the public’s awareness, activist groups have warned about their lack of transparency, lack of due process and propensity to be used to discriminate against Muslims, Arabs and other individuals based on their nationality, ethnicity, religion or other traits.

Trenga said the watchlist “fails to provide constitutionally sufficient due process,” and ordered attorneys for each side to provide a remedy that will “protect a citizen’s constitutional rights while not unduly compromising public safety or national security.”

In an interview with the Sun Sentinel, Wilfredo Ruiz, communications director for CAIR’s Florida chapter and a Tamarac resident, said that this decision does not signal an immediate end to these watchlists.

“What we would like to see next is the total disappearance of that list and the government to be dissuaded from creating any list based on anything other than suspicion of criminal conduct,” he said.

“The government is supposed to have lists or a dossier of you only if you are suspected of committing a criminal offense. If you’re not suspected of that, the government needs to stop that conduct because that conduct is today against Muslims, but tomorrow it could be against Jehovah’s Witnesses. And the day after tomorrow it can be against the Jewish community. Against any minority. It can be against the LGBT community.”

Ruiz said he would like for people on the list to be made aware of their presence on the list and be notified that their names have been removed from the list.

Trenga, who was appointed by President George W. Bush in 2008, ruled in 2015 that the government’s system for people to get off of the no-fly list was constitutionally inadequate, a ruling used to inform the court’s decision this week.

The decision affirmed the suspicions of many in affected groups and civil rights organizations that people were being placed on the list without cause, without being alerted they were on the list and without a way to get off the list.

“There is no evidence, or contention, that any of these plaintiffs satisfy the definition of a ‘known terrorist,’” Trenga wrote. “None have been convicted, charged or indicted for any criminal offense related to terrorism, or otherwise.”

Some of the plaintiffs on the list included toddlers who may have had the same or a similar name as someone else suspected of terrorism.

The information on these lists can not only impact the lives of people on them by limiting their travel,but can also damage their employment and academic opportunities, as well as affect their interactions with the “18,000 state, local, county, city, university and college, tribal and federal law enforcement agencies,” as well as “533 private entities” and foreign governments, according to the judge.

Recent proposals in national and state legislative bodies that would prohibit people on the no-fly list from buying a gun tend to ignore the opaque and likely unconstitutional nature of that list, which then impacts law-abiding citizens from buying or owning a gun for self-defense — another ripple effect affecting people’s civil liberties who are on these lists.

“The most common consequence of these lists happens while traveling, but it extends well beyond that,” Ruiz said. “People can lose their jobs because they lose a license, for example, from the Department of Homeland Security, to be an airport mechanic you need a license [...] and they can unilaterally remove that kind of license.”

Shibly, whose encounters with this shadowy aspect of the legal system inspired him to become a civil rights attorney, said at Thursday’s press conference that his experiences and those of the other plaintiffs are shared by thousands of other Muslim-Americans in the U.S.

“Just about every Muslim-American that I know is either on the watchlist or knows somebody on the watchlist,” he said. “When we, as American Muslims, are targeted because of our religion, that undermines the freedom for all Americans. So yesterday’s victory was not just one of the greatest victories in the history of the United States for the American Muslim community, but it was in fact one of the greatest victories for all Americans and for all people in the United States.”

The government is likely to appeal the ruling, but Shibly and his co-plaintiffs are celebrating this week’s legal decision.

Toward the end of his statement, he said, “Yesterday’s victory makes me proud to be an American.”

Visit CAIRFlorida.org.