Four Muslim-American men filed a lawsuit against the FBI on Tuesday, charging that the bureau placed them on the "no-fly list" in retaliation for their refusal to inform on their communities and then denied them the chance to clear their names.
“I do not want to become an informant, but the government says I must in order to be taken off the no-fly list,” said Awais Sajjad, a plaintiff in the lawsuit. “How can the government tell me that the only way I can see my family again is if I turn my back on my community?”
The plaintiffs—all of whom have no criminal records—filed the complaint (pdf) with the counsel of the Center for Constitutional Rights and Debevoise & Plimpton LLP.
The men say they believe that the FBI used the no-fly list in attempt to coerce and intimidate them into being spies for the bureau. Some were told that infiltration could get their names wiped from the list, while others were threatened with being placed on the list if they resisted recruitment.
"Plaintiffs are among the many innocent people who find themselves swept up in the United States government’s secretive watch list dragnet," reads the complaint. "Plaintiffs declined to act as informants for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (“FBI”) and to spy on their own American Muslim communities and other innocent people."
Being placed on the no-fly list had severe repercussions in all of their lives, including loss of jobs, stigma, and being cut off from family members and loved ones.
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Naveed Shinwari, one of the plaintiffs in the case, told journalist Spencer Ackerman that, because of his inclusion on the no-fly list, he hasn't been able to travel from his home in Omaha, Nebraska to visit his wife, who lives in Afghanistan. As a result, he hasn't seen her in 26 months.
The manner in which the US government manages the no-fly list remains secret. People who find themselves on this list do not receive explanations or due process. According to CCR, there were over 21,000 people on the list as of 2012.
Tuesday's lawsuit is not the first of its kind. In 2010, plaintiffs represented by the ACLU charged that the FBI attempted to use no-fly laws to coerce people into spying on their communities.
Ibrahim Hooper of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, told Common Dreams that this secret list is frequently used to coerce innocent people into infiltrating their own religious communities, neighborhoods, and friend networks.
"We have seen a number of cases in which people are stranded overseas and placed on the no-fly list, we believe, to pressure them to be informants on Muslim communities in America," he said. "A number of times, people have been approached by the FBI overseas and told if you can tell us what happens in mosques, what happens in Muslim communities, you can go back home."
Hooper added, "It's all part of the widespread surveillance of American Muslims, as we saw with the New York Police Department."