Homeland Security Violates Civil Rights of Muslim American Citizens

Affiliate: ACLU of New York
April 20, 2005 12:00 am

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Many Held Overnight After Attending Mainstream Islamic Conference

NEW YORK — The New York Civil Liberties Union, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Council on American-Islamic Relations in simultaneous news conferences in Buffalo and Brooklyn today announced a lawsuit charging that the Department of Homeland Security singled out and violated the rights of American citizens who were returning from a religious conference in Toronto. The lawsuit was filed to challenge the DHS’s policy of detaining, interrogating, fingerprinting and photographing American citizens who are Muslim, solely because they attended an Islamic conference.

Sawsan Tabbaa

Chris Dunn of the NYCLU, Arsalan Iftikhar of CAIR, plaintiff Dr. Sawsan Tabbaa, Donna Lieberman of the NYCLU, Serene age 3, Dr. Tabbaa’s daughter; plaintiff Hassan Shibley and the Catherine Kim of the ACLU.

“None of the citizens who were detained had done anything unlawful, nor were they charged with any unlawful act,” said Donna Lieberman, Executive Director of the NYCLU. “It is very troubling that citizens who were exercising their First Amendment rights were singled out because of their faith and attending the conference.”

On their way back from Reviving the Islamic Spirit (RIS) conference in Toronto in December 2004, American citizens who are Muslim were detained, frisked, photographed and fingerprinted. The DHS’s new policy resulted in the citizens being subjected to unlawful detention and treatment near Buffalo, New York simply because they attended the conference. Among those detained by border agents were several families with their children, including an infant and a pregnant woman.

The RIS conference has been held annually in Toronto since 2003. Each year, it has included a strong message of building friendships with and alliances between Muslim and non-Muslim communities. As in previous years, the Premier of Ontario, the Mayor of Toronto, and a Commissioner of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police had welcomed conference participants on behalf of the Canadian government.

“The government cannot criminalize American citizens for their religious beliefs,” said Catherine Kim, a staff attorney with the ACLU. “Americans need to know that they can practice their religion and attend religious conferences without fear of government reprisals.”

As attendees arrived at the Canada/U.S. border, they were singled out as having participated in the conference, and directed to a nearby building for additional questioning. Several participants wore traditional Muslim dress and were asked about attending the conference before being asked any other questions about their trip to Canada. As more RIS attendees began to amass in the secondary detention area, it became clear that they were victims of profiling. Some were held for as long as six-and-a-half hours overnight.

Said Dr. Sawsan Tabbaa, a Buffalo an orthodontist who attended RIS: “I was treated like a criminal for no other reason than because I was Muslim.”

Said Arsalan Iftikhar, National Legal Director for CAIR: “When American citizens are targeted by their own government and detained, searched, fingerprinted and photographed with threat of arrest for committing no crime, this is not only unacceptable and unlawful, but also unconstitutional and un-American.”

The conference attendees were isolated from the outside world while being detained. They were prevented from contacting attorneys, their family members or the news media to tell them about their detention. Several of them had their cellular phones seized by border agents.

Said Christopher Dunn, NYCLU Associate Legal Director: “American citizens of all faiths have a right to attend religious conferences without having the government detaining and interrogating them and without the government putting their fingerprints and photographs in a database. What the government is doing is wrong and unconstitutional, and our lawsuit aims to stop this practice.”

The lawsuit charges that the Department of Homeland Security violated the plaintiffs’ rights under the First and Fourth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution, and under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. It was filed today in federal court for the Eastern district of New York on behalf of five American citizens.

Attorneys working on the lawsuit include NYCLU Associate Legal Director Christopher Dunn and staff attorney Udi Ofer; ACLU staff attorneys Catherine Kim and Corey Stoughton; CAIR’s Legal Director Arsalan Iftikha and legal advisor Khurrum Wahid; and New York University School of Law Professor Michael Wishnie.

The complaint for the Buffalo Border Detention case is online at http://nyclu.org/pdfs/tabbaa_v_chertoff_complaint.pdf

Plaintiffs’ biographies are available online at

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