Justices to Decide Whether FBI Agents Who Abused List to Coerce Can Be Held Accountable
October 6, 2020, Washington, D.C. – Today, attorneys for American Muslims who were placed or kept on the No-Fly List in retaliation for refusing to spy on their communities argued before the U.S. Supreme Court, urging the Court to uphold a ruling that the men may sue the FBI agents for interfering with their freedom to practice their religion. The men initially sued to be removed from the List. After years of being prevented from flying, and just days before the first major hearing in the case, the men each received a letter informing them they were no longer on the List. A judge then dismissed the remaining portion of their lawsuit, which sought damages for the emotional and financial harm the men had suffered, but a federal appeals court reinstated the case. The Trump administration appealed to the Supreme Court.
“For years, I was frightened and intimidated by FBI agents who repeatedly tried to force me to go against my beliefs, even though I had done nothing wrong,” said Muhammed Tanvir, a plaintiff in the case. “I was being treated like I had no soul in my body. I am seeking justice in the hope that they don't do this to others.”
After repeatedly refusing FBI requests to spy on their Muslim communities—among other things, to visit online Islamic forums or attend certain mosques and “act extremist” —and after years of flying without incident, Muhammad Tanvir, Jameel Algibhah, Naveed Shinwari, and a fourth man who did not join in the appeal discovered they were not permitted to board flights. FBI agents told each man he would be able to get off the No-Fly List if he agreed to work for the FBI. The suit alleges that the FBI's focus on the men had nothing to do with any criminal investigation or activity connected to them or specific individuals in their community. The lawsuit argues that the FBI agents abused the List, placing the men on it not because they posed any threat to aviation security, but in order to coerce them into being informants on their communities, thereby violating the men’s religious rights.
The case was brought under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, or RFRA, and other statutes. The men and their attorneys say it is not enough simply to remove the men from the List; they say accountability for abuses by FBI agents is necessary to prevent those abuses from happening again.
“We hope the Court will recognize that RFRA authorizes damages as a remedy for harm that cannot otherwise be redressed, such as that experienced by our clients because removal from the No-Fly List was insufficient to make them whole,” said Ramzi Kassem, Professor of Law and Director of the CLEAR project (Creating Law Enforcement Accountability & Responsibility) at CUNY School of Law, who argued today.
As a result of their placement on the No-Fly List, for years the men were unable to see spouses, children, sick parents, and elderly grandparents who are overseas. They lost jobs, were stigmatized within their communities, and suffered severe financial and emotional distress. If the Supreme Court affirms the decision of the Second Circuit, the men will have a chance to pursue their damages claims in the district court and recover damages from the individual FBI agents who abused their power and placed the men on the List in an attempt to coerce them.
“Abuses like this happened because law enforcement officers have learned to expect they will never be held accountable for misusing their near total power to place people on the No-Fly List. Without increased transparency and a remedy for past abuses, the system will remain tailor-made for abuse,” said Shayana Kadidal, a Senior Managing Attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights and counsel in the case.
Advocates say the FBI’s abusive behavior in this case is just one example of the profiling, targeting, and harassment of Muslims by law enforcement and other government officials, which also includes extensive surveillance and infiltration of their religious communities and spaces, including mosques; holds on immigration status and other benefits; and the Muslim Ban.
Tanvir v. Tanzin was brought by the CLEAR Project, the Center for Constitutional Rights, and co-counsel at the law firm of Debevoise & Plimpton LLP.
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’s mandate is to serve Muslim and all other clients, communities, and movements in the New York City area and beyond that are targeted by local, state, or federal government agencies under the guise of national security and counterterrorism.
The Center for Constitutional Rights works with communities under threat to fight for justice and liberation through litigation, advocacy, and strategic communications. Since 1966, the Center for Constitutional Rights has taken on oppressive systems of power, including structural racism, gender oppression, economic inequity, and governmental overreach. Learn more at ccrjustice.org.