Elham Asaad Buaras
On January 13, a federal appeals court heard how the New York Police Department (NYPD) may have spied on Muslim business owners, students and mosque worshipers in New Jersey following the 9/11 terrorist attacks solely because of their religion.
Attorneys from Muslim Advocates and the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) urged the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit to overturn a federal district court’s dismissal of Hassan v City of New York in February 2014, a case that challenges the NYPD’s blanket surveillance of Muslims.
In its papers to the appeal court CCR showed how the NYPD dispatched plain-clothed officers to Muslim neighbourhoods in New Jersey, monitoring bookstores, bars, nightclubs and cafes. The officers’ documents showed how they catalogued “religiously oriented facts”.
The NYPD documented prayer mats hanging on restaurant walls, posters in shops advertising for Qur’an lessons; pictures of mosques hanging in grocery stores; restaurants that serve “religious Muslims” or that are located near mosques; customers visiting Dunkin’ Donuts after Friday prayer; employees or customers wearing “traditional clothing;” and shops posting signs announcing that they will be closed in observance of Friday prayer.
One of eleven plaintiffs is an Iraq War veteran Syed Farhaj Hassan who says his mosque was targeted and that made him stop going.
“The American Muslim community was victimized by the New York Police Department and their warrant-less surveillance,” Hassan said. “There’s no reason that that should stand to continue.”
The plaintiffs also include a Muslim school head teacher, members of the Muslim Student Association at Rutgers University and a coalition of mosques.
CCR argued the original trial had accepted the City’s argument that its blanket surveillance of Muslims was justified despite the fact that the NYPD itself had conceded in more than ten years of operation (2002 to at least 2012) that the City’s programme failed to produce a single lead.
CCR is also challenging the ruling that any harm caused by the spying was caused not by the unlawful surveillance program, but by the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting of the Associated Press that exposed it
The three-judge panel questioned whether police had any specific leads to justify the surveillance of Muslim businesses, mosques and student groups in New Jersey following 9/11.
The judges questioned why the surveillance wasn’t more targeted.
“You’ve got to admit there are a lot of people in this country that (became) prejudiced against Muslims after 9/11,” US Circuit Judge Jane Roth said.
“Whether that includes the people who have instituted the surveillance practice in New York City – how can we know at this point?”
Lawyer for the City, Peter Farrell, called any inconvenience to Muslims was “self-imposed, based on subjective fears” that may have led them to restriction.
However, the 3rd Circuit Judges said the harm was “concrete” if attendance at mosques fell or businesses lost money because they feared those locations were being watched.
“I think it’s really unfair to have the New York Police Department come to our jurisdiction, come to our university, to spy on us. I’m Muslim by religion – but my nationality is American. So I’m American by heart,” said one of the plaintiffs, Taqi Khan, 20, who was born in Pakistan but grew up in New Jersey.
CCR Legal Director, Baher Azmy, argued, “You cannot use religion as a proxy for criminality.”
“Today marks a critical day on the path to justice for all the victims who have been treated like criminals simply because of their faith,” said Legal Director of Muslim Advocates, Glenn Katon.
“The NYPD has abused its powers for too long and has brazenly violated our core constitutional values of freedom and equality under the law, and we hope that today’s argument will pave the way to a ruling to protect Americans of all faiths against discrimination by law enforcement,” she added.