Five Muslim-Americans, including four Western New Yorkers, filed a federal lawsuit today, claiming they were unlawfully detained for hours at the U.S.-Canadian border when returning from an Islamic conference in Toronto late last year.
"This goes to the heart of the government's false argument that in order to prosecute the war on terrorism, civil liberties have to be put aside," said Udi Ofer, a staff attorney for the New York Civil Liberties Union in New York City. "The clients in this lawsuit are the victims of overzealous and counterproductive anti-terrorism initiatives."
The five people filing suit, including two Amherst residents, one from Williamsville and one from Niagara Falls, claim they were detained for up to 6 1/2 hours at the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge on Dec. 26 and 27.
The five, all U.S. citizens who carried passports or New York State driver's licenses, also claim in court papers that they were interrogated about the conference, then frisked, fingerprinted and photographed, often against their wishes. One woman said she was asked to remove her hijab, a traditional Muslim head scarf.
The lawsuit was filed in the Eastern District of New York, with simultaneous news conferences in Buffalo and New York City.
Ofer said he believes that this is the first such lawsuit filed by people targeted at the border solely because they exercised their First Amendment rights at such a conference. The First Amendment, he said, should protect American citizens whether they're in the country or crossing into it.
"It's not making the country any safer, targeting Muslim-Americans engaging in free speech and religious expression," he added.
The five citizens were among roughly 35 people detained for hours at the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge following the Reviving the Islamic Spirit Conference in Toronto.
The conference is a mainstream cultural and religious gathering that advocates peace, tolerance and unity, according to the court papers.
Among those addressing the conference were the mayor of Toronto and the Ontario premier, Dalton McGuinty, who applauded the thousands of young people for gathering to "explore ways in which Muslim youth can make a difference in the life of their community -- and make the world a better place."
The five Muslim-Americans claim they were asked many questions about the conference, including whether anyone asked them to harm Americans.
The court papers quote one Homeland Security spokeswoman as saying later that border agents detained anyone who said they attended the conference.
"Conferences such as the one that these 34 individuals just left in Toronto may be used by terrorist organizations to promote terrorist activities," the spokeswoman said, according to court papers.
Homeland Security officials later reiterated what border agents told some of the five residents, that the people were detained following a directive from Homeland Security officials in Washington, court papers contend.
The lawsuit lists, as defendants, four individuals from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, both in Washington and Buffalo.
The suit seeks no specific monetary damages. Instead, it asks the court to stop border agents from detaining, interrogating, fingerprinting and photographing Muslim-Americans just because they are returning from religious conferences. It also asks that all fingerprints and photos either be returned to the five people or destroyed.
The plaintiffs are Sawsan Tabbaa of Amherst, an orthodontics instructor at the University at Buffalo Dental School; her son, Hassan Shibly, 18, a UB student from Amherst; Karema Atassi, 22, of Williamsville, a UB graduate student; Galeb Rizek, 33, a Niagara Falls hotel manager; and Asmaa Elshinawy, 20, a teaching assistant who lives in Brooklyn.