Three Muslim men who were placed on the federal “no-fly list” because they refused to become FBI informants can sue agents and officials for money damages, a federal appeals court in Manhattan ruled on Wednesday.
Lawyers for the men — Muhammad Tanvir, Jameel Algibhah and Naveed Shinwari — called the Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision a precedent-setting ruling under the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act that would help deter religious discrimination.
The FBI agents “forced them to choose between spying on innocent fellow Muslims and being able to fly to see their families,” said Ramzi Kassem, a professor at CUNY School of Law. “Today’s decision should give pause to any FBI agent who is abusing the power to place people on the No-Fly List in order to turn them into informants.”
Shinwari, in a statement, said, “By putting me on the No-Fly List these federal agents punished me for refusing to spy on my own community and caused me and my family great pain.”
The three men — citizens or legal permanent residents from New York or Connecticut — sued for monetary damages in 2013, claiming that agents wanted them to spy on their mosques, express extremist views on Islamic forums and even travel to Pakistan. The flying ban kept them from visiting relatives and caused them to lose jobs, they said.
In 2015, following an order from a court in Oregon in a different case requiring the government to reform its procedures to allow people to challenge their no-fly status, the men were removed from the list and had their ability to fly restored.
U.S. District Judge Ronnie Abrams then dismissed the portion of the case seeking damages from 25 named and unnamed federal officials involved in their listing, citing limits on the right to sue individual officials.
But the appeals court said the complaint alleged the men were caught up in a “broader web of federal law enforcement mistreatment of American Muslims” that included “surveillance and intelligence gathering.”
It said the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, passed in 1993, was designed to provide relief to “persons whose religious exercise is substantially burdened by government,” and that it included suits for damages as well as injunctions against agencies.
The unanimous Second Circuit panel did not resolve questions regarding whether the officials involved might be shielded by immunity defenses protecting the latitude of officials in exercising their discretion. Abrams was directed to consider those claims as the suit proceeds.
A spokeswoman for the Manhattan U.S. attorney’s office, which represented the government defendants, declined to comment on the ruling.