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Muslim American group asks judge to ensure better treatment

Last December, a group of about 40 Muslim-Americans returning from an Islamic conference in Toronto was stopped and detained at the U.S. border.

Although they were U.S. citizens, they said they were questioned for hours, "humiliated" and "treated like terrorists" by U.S. Homeland Security agents.

Several of those Muslim-Americans went to a federal judge in Buffalo on Thursday and asked him to prevent such an incident from happening again when the same conference is held next week.

The New York Civil Liberties Union joined them in asking District Judge William M. Skretny to issue an injunction, directing Homeland Security officials to prevent any unreasonable detention or scrutiny of Muslims who attend this year's Reviving the Islamic Spirit Conference.

"I'm a law-abiding, productive citizen," said Dr. Sawsaan Tabbaa, one of the plaintiffs and an Amherst orthodontist. "I do not want to be labeled as a terrorist. The fact that I am a Muslim woman does not make me a terrorist."

A government attorney, Anthony J. Coppolino, said it was "unfortunate" that Tabbaa and the others were detained and interrogated at the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge last Dec. 26-27, but he defended the actions of federal agents.

Authorities were responding to a tip that someone who had attended a Muslim religious conference might be involved in plans for a terrorist action, Coppolino said. He said he could not release more specifics because the information is classified.

Government officials were concerned about public safety when they conducted the interrogations and did not intend to violate anyone's rights to free speech or religious worship, Coppolino said.

Government attorneys asked Skretny to dismiss the case, arguing it would be wrong for the judge to place restrictions on how Homeland Security officials should respond to tips about potential terrorism.

According to the civil liberties union, hundreds of Muslim-Americans in several cities were interrogated, searched, photographed and fingerprinted late last December, because of the tip received by Homeland Security officials. No terrorist acts occurred.

The group's lead attorney, Christopher Dunn, called it a classic illustration of how individual rights can be compromised by the government's hunt for terrorists.

"[Muslims] don't want this to happen again," Dunn said. "They don't want to be treated as terrorists for attending a religious conference."

Skretny listened to nearly three hours of arguments, with Dunn imploring him to issue a preliminary injunction, ordering the government not to subject people who attend the Toronto conference to the same tactics this year.

The judge said he will issue a decision before the conference begins Dec. 23.

The five Muslim Americans who filed a civil rights lawsuit on the matter are Tabbaa, 44, who was traveling with her five children when detained last year; her son, Hassan Shibley, 19, a University at Buffalo political science student; Galeb Rizek, 33, a hotel manager from Niagara Falls; Karen Atassi, 22, a University at Buffalo graduate student in school counseling; and Asmaa Elshinawy, 20, a teaching assistant at an early childhood center in Brooklyn.

Tabbaa, Rizek and Shibley attended Thursday's court session. Their attorneys describe them as law-abiding Americans who are outraged by the treatment they received in Lewiston when returning to the United States. The lawsuit was filed in April.

Speaking in the courthouse lobby, Rizek accused the government of trying to discourage Muslim-Americans from learning more about their religion. He and Shibley said they believe the government is trying to pressure them to stay away from the Toronto conference this year, but both said they plan to go.

"Of course, I plan on going," Shibley said. "This is why we came to America, for religious freedom . . . I just hope I won't be treated like a criminal again."

Among the allegations in the lawsuit:

The plaintiffs were treated like criminals after attending a conference for "entirely lawful religious reasons." Four of the five plaintiffs had valid passports, and a fifth had a New York State driver's license.

Conference attendees, including several children, were kept for "many hours in a room that was cold and lacked adequate seating." Some children cried because their hands turned blue from the cold and they saw their parents subjected to "humiliating interrogations" by armed agents.

Federal agents asked inappropriate questions, including, "Why did you attend the conference?" and "Did anyone ask you to harm Americans?"

Agents treated some of the plaintiffs roughly while frisking or fingerprinting them.

The participation of one government attorney in the case -- Jill M. Skretny, the judge's distant cousin -- upset civil liberties union attorneys and prompted them to ask Skretny to recuse himself. He declined.

Skretny said Jill Skretny, who spent one month working as a student intern in his office nine years ago, is the daughter of his second cousin. The judge said he has had so little contact with Jill Skretny that the connection doesn't merit his removal.

e-mail: dherbeck@buffnews.com

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