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Court Revives Muslim-Americans' Lawsuit Against FBI Agents

By William Vogeler, Esq. on May 04, 2018 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Muhammad Tanvir, a Muslim-American, tried to fly from the United States to visit his mother in Pakistan for five years.

Every time he went to the airport, however, federal agents stopped him. The FBI had placed him on the "No Fly List," a watchlist for suspected terrorists.

Tanvir sued in Tanvir v. Tanzin, claiming he wasn't a terrorist and that the agents had violated his civil rights. A trial judge threw out the case, but the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals reversed.

'No Fly List'

The FBI maintains a database of individuals known or reasonably suspected of being involved in terrorist activity. To put people on the "No Fly List," an agent needs "derogatory information" that they "pose a threat of committing a terrorist act" on an aircraft.

In 2007, Tanvir was living in Queens, New York. He was a Muslim and permanent resident of the United States, but his wife, son and parents lived in Pakistan.

He alleged in his lawsuit that FBI agents questioned him about an acquaintance who in the U.S. illegally. Later, Tanvir said, they asked him to be an informant about activities in the Muslim community.

Tanvir declined, and that's when his problems began. He said they harassed him with phone calls, threatened to deport him, and trapped him in the country by putting him on the "No Fly List."

Religious Freedom

Joined by three other Muslim-Americans in the case, Tanvir accused the agents of violating the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The plaintiffs said they had no basis for putting them on the list.

They said the agents used the list, created in response to the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, to coerce and intimidate them. Although a trial judge threw out the case against the agents, the Second Circuit revived it.

Writing for the appeals panel, Judge Rosemary Pooler said that the agents could be personally liable under the RFRA.

It was "at least possible at the time that Congress passed RFRA that an individual damages claim would have been available for a free exercise violation," she wrote in remanding the case to the trial court.

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