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Subscribe to this list via RSS Blog posts tagged in Civil Rights

Posted by on in Civil Rights

On July 4, CAIR will mark Independence Day by joining fellow Americans at the "Restore the Fourth" rally in Washington, D.C. in support of the U.S. Constitution's Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches.

This rally comes at a time when the country's national security and law enforcement agencies are accused of engaging in several domestic spying programs that allowed them to obtain the daily phone, email and online records of American citizens and foreigners alike, without any probable cause or suspicion of wrongdoing.

The Fourth of July honors that triumphant day in 1776 when the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence, asserting that America's thirteen colonies were free and independent from the tyrannical British rule. That our nation would establish a new Government under the principles that "all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

Our nation's founders rejected the British Crown's "absolute despotism" and its "long train of abuses and usurpations" of Americans rights and state laws. Among the colonies' grievances against King George III were that he "obstructed the administration of justice, by refusing his assent to laws for establishing judiciary powers," "depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of trial by jury" and abolished "our most valuable laws ... altering fundamentally the forms of our governments."

Prior to the Deceleration of Independence, in 1761, Boston lawyer James Otis spoke against overly-broad warrants issued by the British government. These Writs of Assistance allowed the crown's agents to search any house or ship they wished, without any specific reason. John Adams -- signer of the Declaration of Independence and our nation's second president -- said of Otis's speech, "Then and there, the child Independence was born."

Twelve years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence the U.S. Constitution was formally adopted, shortly followed by the ratification of the first ten amendments to that Constitution, the Bill of Rights. Those fundamental principles of liberty guided the American Revolution were enshrined in the Bill of Rights, preserving the personal freedoms of all American against any future tyrannies, abuses and usurpations of law.

Today, recent leaks have revealed that the National Security Agency, in cooperation with the FBI, is covertly carrying out at least two nationwide surveillance programs that collect information on the private calls and online activities of U.S. citizens and non-permanent residents alike. These programs are being carried out in secret partnership with some of the nation's top telecommunications and internet and technology companies.

That is why organizations like CAIR are celebrating Independence Day this year by rallying in support of the Bill of Rights and the Fourth Amendment. We rally under disheartening reports that our nation's national security or law enforcement agencies are engaged in domestic and international spying programs that undermine the core constitutional protections of privacy and prohibition against unreasonable search and seizure.

Through secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court orders, the federal government is obtaining -- without any probable cause or suspicion of wrongdoing -- data from millions of American Verizon Business Network Services customers and user account information from Google, Yahoo!, Facebook, Microsoft (Hotmail, etc.), Apple, PalTalk, YouTube, Skype and AOL. It is strongly suspected that the federal government is also collecting call data from all other major phone carriers.

While some in Congress and the White House say that these spying programs are lawful under the Patriot Act and Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, CAIR and the civil rights community believe that the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution is clear: "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause. ..."

Again, CAIR urges the president and Congress to establish clear criteria for how such communication records are collected and for how long they can be stored. Congress should amend of section 215 of the Patriot Act to enact better safeguards that protect Americans from such abuses, and commit to full public disclosure and transparency by declassifying aspects of the spying programs.

Legislative initiatives like these are necessary to protect the fourth amendment rights of all Americans, including members of the American Muslim community, which has been subject to unwarranted and discriminatory acts of surveillance for more than a decade. Furthermore, without additional information about the criteria that determine "foreignness," CAIR remains concerned that these programs could discriminate on the basis of religion and national origin.

CAIR is proud to be a part of that long tradition established by our nation's founding fathers in asserting the rights and liberties of our fellow citizens against the tyranny of government abuses and usurpations of law.

In celebration of the Fourth of July, we encourage you to read copies of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights, and take action by contacting the president and Congress to demand an immediate end to these abusive and unconstitutional government spying programs.

Robert McCaw is the government affairs manager at CAIR's national headquarters on Capitol Hill.

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Posted by on in Surveillance
Recent reports have revealed that the FBI and National Security Agency are “tapped” directly into the servers of the nation’s top Internet providers and collecting the phone records of millions of Verizon customers. It is strongly suspected that the federal government is also collecting call data from all other major phone carriers.

I was told earlier today by a colleague from another civil rights organization “there is a good chance that the feds are intercepting my phone calls and emails, but I am sure that everyone in your organization and the Muslim community are under surveillance.”

My response was,“We are all under surveillance.”

I am a policy advocate for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, CAIR, the nation’s largest Muslim civil liberties and advocacy organization.

As a nation we sat idly by while Congress passed and the president signed into law the USA PATRIOT Act and expanded the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) – the primary sources of authority for these expansive domestic spying programs.

While Americans were told that these programs would be used primarily to target violent extremist groups like al-Qaeda, federal law enforcement and national security agencies quickly used their new found powers to spy on American citizens.

At present, the FBI and NSA have obtained direct access, under FISA secret court orders, to the servers of Google, Yahoo!, Facebook, Microsoft (Hotmail, etc.), Apple, PalTalk, YouTube, Skype, and AOL. Under a surveillance program, code-named PRISM, they are collecting data on personal emails, chats, videos, photos, stored data, VoIP, file transfers, video conferences, logins, and details on online social networking.

It has also been reported that FBI and the NSA are using the USA PATRIOT Act to obtain FISA secret court orders instructing Verizon Business Network Services to turn over millions of customer phone records. Under this secret court order, Verizon must provide the FBI and NSA with phone records “between the United States and abroad” and “wholly within the United States, including local telephone calls.”

This includes the phone numbers for both parties on a call, as well as data on time, location, duration, and other unique identifiers — but not  the names of persons participating in the calls (although such information is easily attainable) and the content of  their conversations.

Earlier today President Obama said at a press conference that we as a nation “Can’t have 100 percent safety and 100 percent security and 0 percent inconvenience.”

In response to the president, I would quote one of our nation’s founding fathers Benjamin Franklin, who said, People willing to trade their freedom for temporary security deserve neither and will lose both.

This all-encompassing domestic spying program that collects and deciphers metadata aggregated from our phone calls, emails, and online footprints does not only affect the civil rights of American Muslims, it coercively dismantles the privacy and free speech rights of all Americans.

Such domestic spying programs can easily be dismantled, however, if all Americans who value the constitutional protections of privacy and prohibition of unreasonable search and seizure take action by contacting their elected representatives.

In 2011, Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, warned that “when the American people find out how their government has secretly interpreted the Patriot Act, they will be stunned and they will be angry.”

I believe that it is entirely appropriate in light of these recent revelations that Americans join together in expressing their shock and anger over such abusive and unconstitutional government spying programs.

Some in Congress and the White House say that these spying programs are lawful under the USA PATRIOT Act and Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. During a recent conference call joined by some of the nation’s leading rights organizations that work on surveillance issues it was agreed that the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution is clear:

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause…”

Robert McCaw is the government affairs manager at CAIR’s national headquarters on Capitol Hill.
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Posted by on in Entrapment
By Rachel Roberts

As details emerge about Matthew Aaron Llenaza, the San Jose man arrested for plotting terrorism at the behest of an undercover FBI agent, we have learned that Mr. Llenaza had a history of bipolar disorder and psychosis. This newly publicized information about Mr. Llenaza casts doubt on the portrait the FBI has drawn of its suspect, whom they characterize as a shrewd and calculating Taliban sympathizer intent on doing harm to the United States. It also raises concerns about the FBI using public resources to thwart plots that it is, in fact, concocting on its own. 

But these new details about Mr. Llenaza highlight something not often talked about in the mainstream discourse about counterterrorism efforts: its effects on the mentally ill.

Our organization, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, has offered legal representation and advice to hundreds of American Muslims who were approached by FBI and other law enforcement agents purportedly for terrorism-related investigations in recent years. 

Our California offices have received several complaints from family members of mentally ill Muslims that the FBI or a cooperating agency expressed a need to question their disabled loved one as part of a terrorism investigation. The reason given was that the subject had exhibited some "suspicious behavior."  In several such cases, law enforcement agents conducted multiple interviews with mentally ill individuals without an attorney present. 

Family members reported that law enforcement agents asked questions about religion and geopolitics, which were met with answers that, although wild and often incoherent, could be misconstrued as support for violence against the U.S and be used as a basis to further target that subject.

These interviews, when coupled with the generally pervasive fear American Muslims have of terrorism accusations, have also resulted in exacerbating the illnesses of the Muslims approached.  We know of cases in which mentally ill Muslims have suffered psychotic episodes and have even attempted suicide after interactions with law enforcement.

Because mental disabilities often result in an inability to control physical behavior and speech, interviews that take place in this context have the potential not only to unfairly incriminate an innocent suffering person, but to mislead law enforcement and waste public resources on those who need treatment, not criminal penalties for crimes they would never have the capacity to commit.

In many of the prominent terrorism trials of the past decade, the Muslim defendants who worked with FBI and law enforcement agents to plan or attempt to carry out attacks on the U.S. also had histories of mental illness.

For example in the trial of the Newburgh Four, a group of Muslim men were lured by an informant bearing expensive gifts into plotting to blow up synagogues in the Bronx, NY and shoot down a military jet. One of the defendants, Laguerre Payen, who suffered from schizophrenia, was repeatedly disruptive during his trial and engaged the judge in a rambling dialogue about his conviction at the time of his sentencing.

In another case, Ahmad Ferhani, unemployed and in and out of mental institutions for many years, was convicted of plotting to blow up synagogues after being approached by an informant linked to the New York City Police Department.

The pressure on law enforcement to produce results for counterterrorism efforts, especially when combined with anti-Muslim training that characterizes Muslims as unhinged and bent on destroying the U.S., has the potential to criminalize those members of the community most in need of the system's protections.

That the entrapment defense has failed in every terrorism trial in the past dozen years despite clear government overreach highlights how our criminal laws have not been able to overcome the climate of fear that permeates our post-9/11 world.

Law enforcement agencies must take steps to implement ethical standards when they interact with members of the public, Muslim or not, who have been diagnosed with or who exhibit signs of mental illness.

Law enforcement should also focus their efforts on those who have already taken an affirmative step toward committing a terrorism-related crime. According to a recent article in Mother Jones, an FBI informant led one of every three terrorist plots foiled, and also provided all the necessary weapons, money, and transportation to people who ordinarily would not have the resources, intellectual or material, to carry out attacks.

As a society, we have much to learn about how we care for and treat the mentally ill. Scapegoating them for crimes or subjecting them to heightened scrutiny simply for being members of their religious community is a step backward.

Rachel Roberts is an attorney and the civil rights coordinator for CAIR's Northern California offices.

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Posted by on in Border Questioning
As Americans, we have a lot to be thankful for. In the hustle of everyday life, we might take for granted the little things that we have grown accustomed to, such as the ability to speak freely and defend our own rights, or the ability to travel freely whether on business, for leisure, or visiting loved ones. Yet even when we're accustomed to these everyday liberties, it's always good to pause and put things in perspective.

What happens when those liberties start to be taken away? 

Imagine you're on a road trip with your family, and as you cross from Canada or Mexico at a U.S. border checkpoint, you're signaled to pull your car to the side of the road. Imagine you're asked to step out of your car and are put into a holding room -- and held for up to 10 hours.

Imagine an unidentified government agent comes in and begins aggressively interrogating you, asking personal questions like: How many times a day do you pray? What do you pray for? What mosque do you go to? Do you believe in the Qur'an?

Now imagine that your personal belongings such as your wallet, purse, cell phone, and laptop are confiscated and held by the government, possibly for several months.

What if this begins to happen every time you travel? Highways and airports would become barriers rather than facilitators to moving freely.

These scenarios that I've described are not hypothetical: they are happening as we speak, on an alarmingly frequent basis, to Muslims travelling in North America and abroad. 

Suddenly, travelling has become a nightmarish experience for many ordinary Americans whose names that raise a flag in a clearly imperfect system. 

Some of these people believe they've been placed on a government watch list, but even if they wanted to appeal that placement, there's no reliable path to have your name cleared from those lists. Many in the American Muslim community are now finding themselves lost in a seemingly endless maze of secrecy, red-tape and frustration. From an advocacy and activism standpoint, we must stand up and help find a resolution for these issues.

A few weeks ago, staff and board members from CAIR chapters across the country sought to find a solution to this situation as we participated in Muslim advocacy days on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. This has become a yearly tradition that enables us to meet face-to-face with our elected officials and their staff. Each year, our reach increases; this year we met with 168 congressional offices.  

I come from the border state of Arizona, and this issue hits especially close to home for me, as the number of reported instances of religious questioning and lengthy detainments at the borders is on the rise. The same is true for states along the northern border with Canada. CAIR offices in these states have been handling these religious questioning cases for years and have filed inquiries with DHS. 

We might assume that our elected officials are aware of such cases of religious questioning or improper behavior by law enforcement, but most of the time they're not. It is our job to educate them on these issues -- as the Rev. Al Sharpton said during CAIR's national banquet last year, we need to "bring light to dark places."

When we sat down and described these issues that many of their constituents are facing, the congressional offices responded with surprise and a great deal of support and concern about this trend. By bringing forth such stories, we are able to ask these members of Congress to support letters of inquiry or other possible legislative routes that could eventually bring about a resolution. The members of our community who have been unfairly targeted by these egregious practices deserve nothing less.

As we move forward from these productive meetings, we must continue to do our part to bring these issues to light. I hope we all realize that even though these types of intrusive tactics are happening to a targeted segment of the population, it is vital to always stand up for the inalienable rights of all Americans.

We live in times where civil liberties are slowly eroding for the population at large; therefore, issues such as this should be of grave concern to all. The liberties that we should all be thankful for are in jeopardy; our choice is to stand up and defend them or face an uncertain road ahead.

Imraan Siddiqi is a board member for CAIR-Arizona.

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Posted by on in Indefinite Detention

As dozens of Guantanamo detainees carry on the hunger strike that began in early February over allegations of guards mishandling inmates' Qurans, CAIR is joining 24 other human and civil rights organizations today in sending a letter to President Obama calling for "immediate steps to end indefinite detention without charge and begin closing the prison at Guantánamo Bay."

Reports differ between military officials and detainees' attorneys on the number of prisoners on hunger strike. The military is claiming that 26 out of the 166 inmates are on strike, with 11 being fed through feeding tubes, while attorneys and prisoners say 130 prisoners are on strike, and that one attempted suicide. As the hunger strike continues, the possibility of prisoner deaths becomes more imminent.

After being detained for 11 years without charge or trial, many Guantánamo prisoners are willing to go on hunger strike and risk death to draw attention to their indefinite detention.

When President Obama first took office, he pledged to close the prison at Guantánamo Bay within a year. Yet five years later, Congress has repeatedly outmaneuvered the president's efforts to do so and closing the facility no longer seems to be a priority, deepening the despair of the remaining Guantánamo prisoners.

After twice failing to make good on his threats to veto the National Defense Authorization Acts of 2012 and 2013, President Obama has signed into law a number of restrictive provisions that check his ability to transfer or prosecute detainees or close the prison. While 86 prisoners were approved for release by the U.S. government's Guantánamo Review Task Force in 2009, none have been cleared for transfer because of these obstructive provisions.

As this crisis further develops, CAIR is joining the Center for Constitutional Rights, the American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International, Witness Against Torture, and many others to call upon President Obama to once again commit his administration "to transfer[ing] the remaining detained men [at Guantánamo Bay] to their home countries or other countries for resettlement, or to charge them in a court that comports with fair trial standards."

Moreover, we ask that the president appoint an individual within his administration to lead this transfer effort. Appointing such an individual would be an important step to show that he is recommitting to closing the prison at Guantánamo Bay once and for all.

The shameful detention of prisoners at Guantánamo has become a symbol of our government's erosion of civil liberties over the past 12 years. Only when we as a nation address the issue of indefinite military detention can we begin to restore those liberties and repair our international reputation as a country committed to the rule of law.

Robert McCaw is the government affairs manager at CAIR's national headquarters on Capitol Hill.

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Posted by on in Freedom of Religion

It's generally true that most lawmakers are lawyers, or at least are familiar with the law. It appears, however, that that may not be the case in North Carolina, where at least 11 Republicans sponsored a clearly unconstitutional bill that would allow North Carolina to declare Christianity its state religion by arguing that the First Amendment doesn't apply to states.

One of the basics of constitutional law is that the Fourteenth Amendment (the one extending citizenship to former slaves) makes it clear that states are required to follow the U.S. Constitution, at least the provisions of the Bill of Rights.

The relevant section is called the Equal Protection Clause, and it reads:

"No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."

The purpose at the time was primarily to overturn Jim Crow laws, such as the barring of blacks from juries in West Virginia. But it has since been used much more broadly, to protect the infringement of citizen's fundamental rights as contained in the Bill or Rights.

Of course, the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights guarantees freedom of speech and religion. There is no more fundamental right in American tradition than the freedom to worship (it was numbered first for a reason). The First Amendment states, in its entirety:

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

Key in it is the Establishment Clause, which prevents the government from establishing a state religion.

Again, the Fourteenth Amendment means that states, and their divisions, need to respect all fundamental liberties of their citizens. But this point is apparently lost on some in North Carolina where the resolution with 11 Republican sponsors reads:

SECTION 1. The North Carolina General Assembly asserts that the Constitution of the United States of America does not prohibit states or their subsidiaries from making laws respecting an establishment of religion.

SECTION 2. The North Carolina General Assembly does not recognize federal court rulings which prohibit and otherwise regulate the State of North Carolina, its public schools or any political subdivisions of the State from making laws respecting an establishment of religion.

The reason for this clearly unconstitutional proposal is to establish Christianity as the official religion of North Carolina and ensure that all prayers offered at the beginning of meetings can be Christian ones. The ACLU recently filed a lawsuit charging the Rowan County Board of Commissioners with breaching the Establishment Clause by having 97% Christian prayers at their meetings, and some in the state capitol are trying to run around this.

Hopefully those with a basic understanding of the US Constitution kill the resolution in committee, where it currently is, but if not it certainly can't be upheld by any federal court. A better proposal might be to require some basic civics classes for the Republican cosponsors. I'm sure CAIR or the ACLU would be happy to oblige.

Todd Gallinger is the director of chapter development at CAIR's national headquarters in Washington, D.C.

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Posted by on in No-Fly List

I hope that someday we will all look back in shame at how routinely the United States once barred traveling American Muslims from returning to their country. But while that day may be far off, Ali Ahmed serves as just the latest example of how the misguided and illegal use of the no-fly list imposes a strange form of extrajudicial exile on a growing number of Americans.

Ali, a 20-year-old American citizen studying journalism in San Diego, traveled abroad for his wedding, to visit family, and to make a religious pilgrimage to Mecca.  He performed his pilgrimage without incident, but soon after, Ali got his first hint that the U.S. was going to obstruct his movement abroad.

When he attempted to enter Kenya to visit his father and for the wedding, Kenyan authorities did not let him in and instead sent Ali to Bahrain.  The next day, distraught that his wedding had to be postponed and that he would not be able to see his father, Ali tried to return to his country of citizenship, the United States. At the airport, he was told that he would not be allowed to return because sometime after he left the United States his government had put him on its no-fly list. There was no explanation, no way to resolve the problem – just that he could not fly now or at any point in the future.

People placed on the no-fly list are not allowed to board airplanes, whether inside the U.S. or not, that will cross American airspace. Because the U.S. shares its no-fly list with other countries, it also impacts the ability of listed individuals to enter other countries. In the past few years, we've seen people on the U.S. no-fly list denied entry to Great Britain, Mexico, and now Kenya. And it's a life sentence for listed individuals: people put on the no-fly list almost never get off.

But Ali is not alone in this situation – he joins a long list of American Muslims who are not even accused of any wrongdoing, but who found themselves placed on the no-fly list in the midst of their travels. This list includes Gulet Mohamed from Virginia, Amr Abualrub from Connecticut, Aziz Nouhaili from Nevada, and Michael Migliore, Jamal Tarhuni, and Mustafa Elogbi all from Washington state. Just a few weeks ago the United States prevented another San Diego resident from returning to his country of citizenship. And these are only the ones we know about; there are surely many others who have not fought against their placement on the list and the effective exile that results.

It is unprecedented for our government to be able to effectively bar traveling Americans from returning to the U.S. This is why, many years from now when historians catalogue our government's breathtaking transgressions in the post-9/11 era, the extrajudicial use of the no-fly list will be listed along with government-sanctioned torture, the Patriot Act, indefinite detention, kill lists, warrantless wiretapping, and the United States’ international gulag of secret prisons. We'll view people like Ali Ahmed as part of the vanguard of American citizens who said “Enough is enough,” and asserted their rights.  But for now, we can all do our part by demanding that our government allow Ali and others in his situation to come home.


By Gadeir Abbas

Word count: 550

[Gadeir Abbas is a staff attorney at the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the nation's largest Muslim civil liberties organization. He may be contacted at gabb[email protected]]

ISLAM-OPED is a syndication service of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) designed to offer an American Muslim perspective on current political, social and religious issues. ISLAM-OPED commentaries are offered free-of-charge to one media outlet in each market area. Permission for publication will be granted on a first-come-first-served basis.

Please consider the above commentary for publication.

CONTACT: CAIR National Communications Director Ibrahim Hooper, [email protected], 202-744-7726

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