Muslim legal advocates allege religiously profiled spying by NYPD

Syed Farhaj Hassan, the lead plaintiff in the case, listens to reporters question other Muslim residents of New Jersey who were in court to try to reverse a ruling that found New York City police could legally monitor their activities, on Tuesday outside the U.S. Courthouse in Philadelphia. — AP Photo/Matt Rourke

Attorneys for a group of Muslims claiming they were targeted for surveillance by the New York City Police Department because of their religion took their case to the federal appellate court in Philadelphia this week.

The argument heard in Philadelphia is an appeal of a New Jersey trial court’s dismissal of the case in February 2014, when it ruled in a 10-page summary opinion the surveillance did not harm any of the eleven plaintiffs and if anyone did suffer harm, it was caused not by the unlawful surveillance program, but by the reporting of theAssociated Press that exposed it.

The ruling judge, William J. Martini also accepted the city’s argument its targeting of Muslims for their faith alone was justified in response to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Noel Leader, co-founder of 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care, said the NYPD’s tactics were wrong and ineffective.

“100 Blacks supports the plaintiffs in their case against the City of New York for the NYPD’s discriminatory Muslim surveillance program,” said Noel Leader, co-founder of 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care. “Such police tactics are not only wrong morally and constitutionally, but they also are ineffective police strategies that do not keep us safe.”

Glenn Katon, legal director of Muslim Advocates said the surveillance of Muslims by the NYPD solely because of their religious faith is unconstitutional and presented oral arguments before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Philadelphia. Calling for a reversal of a previous ruling that dismissed the case, Katon said this is the first time a federal appellate court will review the legality of the NYPD’s religious surveillance program.

“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 Katon, legal director of Muslim Advocates. “The NYPD has abused its powers for too long and has brazenly violated our core constitutional values of freedom and equality under the law. We hope that today’s argument will pave the way to a ruling to protect Americans of all faiths against discrimination by law enforcement.”

On Tuesday judges in the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia questioned why the surveillance wasn’t more targeted. Katon said he was hopeful the judges would find the surveillance caused real harm to the Muslim community. Farhaj Hassan, an Iraq war veteran and the lead plaintiff, said there was no reason for law enforcement to target his community because of their faith.

“This lawsuit stands up for Americans of all faiths and upholds our Constitutional rights,” said Hassan. “There’s no reason that the people of my community, my mosque, or any other individual should be treated like a second-class citizen by law enforcement just because of their faith. Our police force is supposed to protect us, not spy on us because of how we pray.”

The case challenges the NYPD alleged blanket surveillance of Muslims in New Jersey. The plaintiffs include a decorated Iraq war veteran, several Rutgers University students, a coalition of New Jersey mosques and the former principal of a grade-school for Muslim girls. They claim they were targeted and kept under surveillance by the NYPD because of their religious faith. The complaint was originally filed in 2012 and claims since 2002, the NYPD allegedly spied on at least 20 mosques, 14 restaurants, 11 retail stores, two grade schools and two Muslim Student Associations in New Jersey.

The 10 plaintiffs are seeking an injunction prohibiting the NYPD from conducting surveillance against them, an expungement of all records made during the surveillance, a declaratory judgment and compensator and nominal damages. Their attorneys said the monitoring has included video surveillance photographing, community mapping, and infiltration of places of worship, student associations, and businesses.

Internal NYPD documents, including a list of 28 “ancestries of interest,” reveal the NYPD used racial and ethnic backgrounds as proxies to identify and target adherents to the Muslim faith. Although the NYPD recently disbanded one of the main units through which it conducted the surveillance, there is no evidence it has abandoned the underlying unlawful targeting and profiling of Muslims.

According to the plaintiffs attorneys in more than ten years of operation the NYPD surveillance failed to produce a single lead.

“By creating a Muslim exception to the bedrock principles of equality and religious freedom, the lower court opinion signals that Muslims are to be second-class citizens,” said Baher Azmy, legal director for the Center for Constitutional Rights, who argued the case this week. “The Constitution prohibits singling out an entire faith for discriminatory policing, simply because a handful of totally unrelated adherents committed criminal acts. Painful historical lessons remind us that courts should not sanction such overt discrimination by law enforcement, even in times of fear.”

According to the complaint, in 2002 the NYPD began a secret spying program designed to infiltrate and monitor Muslim life in and around New York City. The department focused in particular on Muslims in New Jersey and generated at least 20 maps of Newark, N.J., that showed the locations of mosques, Muslim-owned businesses and the ethnic population of the Muslim community. Photographs and videos were taken along with license plate numbers from vehicles parked at the mosques. Undercover operatives were also allegedly used.

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