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Lawsuits allege innocent US Muslims ensnared by terror watchlist

Apr 5, 2016

Credit Andrey Belenko / Flickr

A Michigan advocacy group is suing U.S. government officials on behalf of people who found themselves on a government terror watch list.

The two lawsuits, filed in a federal district court in Virginia Tuesday, say the designation process for the terror watch list is arbitrary, secretive, and unconstitutional.

They claim that an unknown number of American Muslims with no known terror ties — including a seven-month-old baby — have been added to the watch list, largely because they are Muslim.

Mariam Jukaku is one of them. The 32-year-old stay-at-home mother, who lives in California, only discovered she was on the list after flying home to see her parents in southeast Michigan.

During her return trip, Jukaku said she noticed an “SSSS” designation on her boarding pass. She was detained and subjected to “enhanced screening,” including chemical testing.

Jukaku filed a complaint with the U.S. Department Homeland Security, after which she believes she was removed from the list — though the government never confirmed she had ever been on it.

Jukakau says she joined the class-action lawsuit in part because she wants more information more about how the list compiled. “There should be a more effective way of catching people, instead of casting such a wide net that you ensnare innocent Americans,” she said.

Lena Masri is a staff attorney for the Council on American Islamic Relations-Michigan. She says the lawsuits seek a “major overhaul” of the watchlist, which she says is driven by “anti-Muslim bias.”

“They never get notified. They never get any opportunity to contest the [watchlist] designation,” Masri said. “They don’t know what evidence was being used against them. It’s a completely secretive proceeding that takes place behind closed doors.”

In addition to airport detentions and enhanced screenings, some of the plaintiffs allege that designation to the watch list has led to unexplained bank account closures and other financial barriers.

Other U.S. citizens on the list have been barred from re-entering the country. And one man claims to have been tortured in Turkey, after the U.S. shared watch list information with government officials there.

Currently, there are 18 plaintiffs in the suit, which seeks class-action status. Masri said that since the terror watch list is secret, it’s unknown exactly how many people are on it, but it’s likely that “thousands and thousands” of American Muslims are potential plaintiffs.

While the cases were filed in Virginia, most of the plaintiffs either live in southeast Michigan, or have strong ties to the area.