Judge Rules Government Can Target American Citizens Returning From Religious Conferences as Terrorists

Judge Rules Government Can Target American Citizens Returning From Religious Conferences as Terrorists (12/22/2005)

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
CONTACT: media@aclu.org 
 
NEW YORK – In a
case brought by the American Civil Liberties Union and the New York Civil
Liberties Union, a federal judge in Buffalo, NY ruled today that the federal
government can treat innocent American citizens as terrorists when returning to
the United States from religious conferences, say the organizations. 

“As this decision demonstrates, we now are reaching a point in this country
where the ‘war on terrorism’ has turned into a war on the constitution,” said
New York Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Donna Lieberman.  “With
the recent disclosures about government spying on political activity, we no
longer can trust our government to respect our most cherished traditions,
including our right to religious freedom.” 

Judge William Skretny dismissed the lawsuit brought on behalf of American
citizens who were detained for up to six hours, interrogated, fingerprinted and
photographed by border authorities when they returned from a large, mainstream
Islamic conference that took place last December in Toronto, Canada.  Under
the ruling, the government is free to repeat its actions for this year’s
conference, which is scheduled to start tomorrow.

“It is hard to believe that a court would dismiss what the government did to
innocent Americans as simply ‘unfortunate and understandably frustrating.’ 
It is also fundamentally unconstitutional and we are confident that the appeals
court will ultimately vindicate their fundamental rights,” continued
Lieberman.

Noting that “[t]here is no information whatsoever to suggest, and the
government does not contend, that plaintiffs are anything other than law-abiding
American citizens,” the court nonetheless held that the government was free to
treat all of the plaintiffs as potential terrorists because the government had
intelligence suggesting that people involved in terrorism might be attending an
Islamic conference like the Toronto conference.  On the basis of this
information, the Department of Homeland Security directed border agents across
the country to process as potential terrorists every single person they could
identify as returning from an Islamic conference last December.  The
Toronto conference, which featured high-level Canadian political leaders and
law-enforcement officials as speakers, was attended by over 10,000
people.
 
“When law-abiding American citizens cannot attend
religious conferences without being treated as terrorists by our government, our
constitution and the most important values of our society are in peril,” said
New York Civil Liberties Union Associate Legal Director Christopher Dunn, who is
lead counsel on the case.  “We will appeal this decision and vigorously
pursue our claim that concerns about terrorism do not eradicate the
constitutional rights of American citizens.”
 
Despite today’s
ruling, several plaintiffs plan to attend this year’s conference, “I believe in
religious freedom, and I will not allow the federal government to intimidate me
out of that belief,” said plaintiff Hassan Shibley.

 Other New York Civil Liberties Union attorneys working on the case are
staff attorneys Udi Ofer and Corey Stoughton and cooperating attorney Michael
Wishnie.  Catherine Kim of the ACLU is also counsel on the case.  They
are being assisted by students from the Allard K. Lowenstein Human Rights Clinic
at Yale Law School.

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