FBI Agents Listed them for Refusing to Inform, Suit Says
March 1, 2017, New York – Today, civil rights attorneys urged a federal appeals court to reinstate a lawsuit against the FBI for retaliating against Muslims who refused to become informants. The plaintiffs they represent, Muhammad Tanvir, Jameel Algibhah, and Naveed Shinwari, are American Muslim men with no criminal records who were placed or kept on the No-Fly List in retaliation for refusing to become informants.
In 2015, just days before the first major court hearing in the case, the men received letters from the U.S. government confirming their removal from the list, effectively conceding that they never posed a security threat and that the FBI added them to the list only to coerce them into spying.
“The FBI agents basically told our clients that they could spy against fellow Muslims who were not suspected of any crime, in violation of their own Islamic beliefs, or they could forget about flying to see their families or for work,” said Professor Ramzi Kassem, founding director of the CLEAR project, Creating Law Enforcement Accountability and Responsibility, at CUNY School of Law, who argued today. “The fact that they were taken off the list after they sued does not end the story. Our clients were unable to see wives, children, sick parents, and elderly grandparents overseas for years. They also lost jobs, were stigmatized within their communities, and suffered severe financial and emotional distress. They deserve redress for these harms.”
The district court judge nonetheless dismissed the remaining claims seeking damages for these past harms, reasoning that even if the FBI agents violated the Constitution, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA) does not allow money damages for violations of religious freedom like those that occurred here. Three of our clients appealed the decision, asserting that Congress intended to allow for damages under RFRA, and that most other courts have ruled that damages are available.
“Cutting off the last judicial mechanism for accountability will send a clear message to the FBI and other agencies that they can trample on the rights of the Muslim community with impunity,” said Center for Constitutional Rights Senior Staff Attorney Shayana Kadidal. “Under the current administration, it is more crucial than ever that courts provide a check on religiously-motivated abuses like these.”
Prior to lawsuits challenging the No-Fly List, the government operated the list in near-total secrecy and never told people why they were on it or gave them a meaningful chance to dispute their placement. Despite some reforms made under the pressure of litigation, attorneys say the procedures governing who is placed on the list and how to challenge that placement remain gravely deficient, and the lack of transparency and accountability still leaves the No-Fly List, and other watch lists, ripe for abuse.
Tanvir v. Tanzin was brought in 2014 on behalf of Muhammad Tanvir, Jameel Algibhah, Naveed Shinwari and one other plaintiff not currently appealing by the CLEAR project at CUNY School of Law, the Center for Constitutional Rights, and co-counsel at the law firm of Debevoise & Plimpton LLP.
For more information, visit CCR’s case page.
The CLEAR project (Creating Law Enforcement Accountability & Responsibility) is based out of Main Street Legal Services, Inc., the clinical arm of CUNY School of Law. CLEAR serves Arab, Muslim, South Asian, and other communities that are disparately affected by post-9/11 law enforcement policies and practices. In the course of its work, CLEAR has come to represent many individuals who have been placed on various U.S. government watch lists or approached for interrogation or recruitment by law enforcement agencies. Visit www.cunyclear.org and follow @CUNY_CLEAR.