Thursday, August 23, 2007

A federal court yesterday accepted a request by a group of Muslim imams to drop all claims in a federal lawsuit against unspecified “John Doe” passengers for reporting the men’s suspicious behavior, which led to their removal from a US Airways flight last year.

The lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court of Minnesota was amended to “hereby dismiss possible defendants ‘John Does’ as set forth in … the first amended complaint as parties from this action,” said the notice of dismissal. The lawsuit still targets US Airways and Minneapolis airport workers.

Gerry Nolting, a lawyer who represents one of the unnamed “John Doe” passengers, said the dismissal demonstrates the imams’ case did not hold water and that the passengers “were doing nothing but their important duty as airline travelers to report suspicious behavior to the appropriate authorities.”

“Hopefully, this will encourage all airline travelers to continue to be the eyes and ears of the FAA and report suspicious behavior,” Mr. Nolting said.

The lawsuit had said that “plaintiffs are unaware of the true names and capacities of defendants sued herein as John Does and therefore sue said defendants by such fictitious names. Plaintiffs will … amend this complaint to allege true names, capacities, and circumstances supporting the liability of said defendants” after finding out that information.

Passengers and the flight crew said the men were disruptive and did not take their assigned seats and formed a pattern similar to the September 11 hijackers. Some of the men asked for seat-belt extensions they did not need, criticized the war in Iraq and President Bush and talked about al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden.

The Becket Fund, a legal advocacy group that pursues religious freedom cases, demanded that the passengers be dropped from the suit and announced it would represent for free any passengers who were identified and formally named.

“Better late than never,” said Kevin J. Hasson, the group’s president. “They should never have sued the John Does in the first place, and they should have dismissed them long before now, but at last they have finally done the right thing.

“We can now get back to fighting for the real religious liberty of all without the distraction of threatened lawsuits against frightened and vigilant air passengers,” Mr. Hasson said.

Neither the imams nor their lawyers issued any public word yesterday other than the motion to dismiss.

The lawsuit sparked a political debate on Capitol Hill, which led to legislation called the “John Doe” provision to protect airline passengers from being sued if they report behavior that may foreshadow terrorist attacks.

“I am pleased that the legislation I signed today protects Americans from being unduly prosecuted for reporting activity that could lead to acts of terrorism,” President Bush said upon signing the legislation Aug. 3.

The new law is retroactive and allows “John Doe” passengers who are wrongly sued to recover legal fees.

The six imams were removed from the Nov. 20 flight “on the basis of their perceived race, religion, color, ethnicity … ancestry and national origin,” said the lawsuit.

The men were escorted off Flight 300 to Phoenix on Nov. 20, handcuffed briefly, then searched and questioned for several hours by airport police and members of the Joint Terrorism Task Force.

The imams who filed the lawsuit are Omar Shahin, Ahmed Shqeirat, Didmar Faja, Mahmoud Sulaiman and Marwan Sadeddin, all of Arizona, and Mohamed Ibrahim of California.

The imams say the airline and board had, with “the intent to cause harm to [the imams’] reputation, maliciously, recklessly, and, without regard to their privacy and integrity, defamed and made false reports against [the imams] to justify legal action.”

The lawsuit does not ask for a specified amount of money, only that they be awarded compensatory damages to be determined by a jury for “fear, mental pain, inconvenience, humiliation, embarrassment, emotional distress [and] financial injury including lost business profits.”

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