Class-action lawsuit seeks damages for those on US watch lists

By Matt Zapotosky

Gulet Mohamed is among those in a lawsuit that is perhaps the broadest challenge to the federal watch listing system. He was detained in Kuwait years ago. Photo / The Washington Post
Gulet Mohamed is among those in a lawsuit that is perhaps the broadest challenge to the federal watch listing system. He was detained in Kuwait years ago. Photo / The Washington Post

A new class-action lawsuit alleges that untold thousands of people placed on the US watch listing system deserve monetary damages for what it says are the unpleasant and unconstitutional consequences of having their names on various federal registers.

The suit - filed in US District Court in Alexandria on behalf of 18 American Muslims, including a 4-year-old - is perhaps the broadest challenge to the federal watch listing system, though it is hardly the first.

A federal judge in Oregon has already declared the previous no-fly-list procedures unconstitutional, and a federal judge in Alexandria said the way the United States used it, in detaining a Northern Virginia teenager in Kuwait several years ago, was unconstitutional.

The judge invited the teenager, who claimed that he was tortured abroad, to test whether the new procedures still violate his rights. He is among the plaintiffs in the new suit.

The latest challenge is filed as a class action, arguing that it applies to "potentially thousands upon thousands of persons who have been similarly affected." It targets not just the no-fly list, but also the selectee list, which, for instance, calls for more screening at airports for those on it.

"Through extra-judicial and secret means, the federal government is ensnaring individuals into an invisible web of consequences that are imposed indefinitely and without recourse as a result of the shockingly large federal watch lists that now include hundreds of thousands of individuals," the suit alleges.

The suit says that in 2009, the federal government nominated 227,932 people for the lists, and in 2013, the number more than doubled to 468,749.

A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment Tuesday.

Through extra-judicial and secret means, the federal government is ensnaring individuals into an invisible web of consequences that are imposed indefinitely and without recourse.

Federal authorities have implemented new procedures since previous legal challenges to the no-fly list, giving those who think they are on the list a mechanism to inquire about it.

One of the plaintiffs, Osama Ahmed, 24, a pharmacy technician living in Wayne County, said he was pulled aside at the Detroit airport on a trip back from Yemen in 2011 and detained for seven hours while authorities questioned him about politics, his religion and his trip. Ahmed said the agents saw pictures on his phone of him holding a gun - which he said is a common activity in Yemen - and alleged that he was "training."

"Honestly, I was scared," he said. "I felt like I was kind of being put in a position where I did nothing wrong but they might try to link something to me."

I felt like I was kind of being put in a position where I did nothing wrong but they might try to link something to me.

Ahmed said FBI agents later took him to lunch and tried to persuade him to become an informant. The lawsuit alleges that federal authorities often use the no-fly list - and the offer to take people off it - to cultivate sources.

Another plaintiff, Anas Elhady, 22, of Dearborn, Mich., said he was trying to return to the United States last year from Canada by car when he was handcuffed and taken to a cell so cold that he soon began begging for help.

"My hands were shaking, my legs were shaking and even my mouth was shaking," Elhady said.

Elhady said he was eventually taken to a hospital. The others in the suit described similar experiences, alleging that they were detained, sometimes handcuffed and questioned inappropriately for hours.

The suit does not specify the precise level of damages being sought. It was filed by Washington DC-based lawyer Gadeir Abbas, Lena Masri of the Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations and Shereef Akeel of the Michigan-based Akeel & Valentine firm.

- Washington Post

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