Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Lawyers and a Muslim group say they will defend at no cost airline passengers caught up in a lawsuit between a group of imams and U.S. Airways if the passengers are named as “John Does” and sued for reporting suspicious behavior that got the Muslim clerics booted from a November flight.

The six imams are suing the airline, Minneapolis-St. Paul Metropolitan Airports Commission, and the unnamed “John Does” to be named later, for discrimination, saying they were removed from the flight for praying in the airport.

Dr. M. Zuhdi Jasser, a Phoenix-area physician and director of American Islamic Forum for Democracy — a group founded in 2003 to promote moderate Muslim ideas through its Web site ( — told The Washington Times his group will raise money for legal fees for passengers if they are sued by the imams.

“It’s so important that America know there are Muslims who understand who the victims are in air travel,” said Dr. Jasser. “But I hope it doesn’t get to that point because the backlash will be even greater when Americans see Islamists trying to punish innocent passengers reporting fears.”

The lawsuit specifically cites two passengers who stared at the men as they prayed, then made a cell phone call that the imams say went to U.S. Airways to complain about the prayer.

Gerry Nolting, whose Minnesota law firm Faegre & Benson LLP is offering to represent passengers for free, says the judicial system is being “used for intimidation purposes” and that it is “just flat wrong and needs to be strongly, strongly discouraged.”

“As a matter of public policy, the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] presently tells traveling passengers to report suspicious behavior as part of its homeland security program,” Mr. Nolting said. “This has nothing to do with race or ethnicity, but trying to intimidate and discourage reporting of suspicious behavior and [also discourage] the promotion of safe travel.”

Tom Malone, another Minnesota lawyer offering his services pro bono, says the lawsuit is “a very overt attempt to intimidate people” and “coerce them into silence.”

Appearing yesterday on Fox News, Dr. Jasser told Neil Cavuto, “Americans are going to be more afraid of Arabs and the Muslim community for fear of being sued. Why spend money on litigation when we should be spending it on fighting terrorism?”

Passengers and the flight crew say the imams were disruptive, did not take assigned seats, asked for seat-belt extensions they didn’t need, loudly criticized the war in Iraq and President Bush, and shouted about al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. The men were escorted off Flight 300 to Phoenix, handcuffed briefly, searched and questioned for several hours by airport police and members of the Joint Terrorism Task Force.

The imams’ lawyer, Omar Mohammedi, will not comment on his case except to say that the John Does, who could also be airline employees, will not be determined until the lawsuit enters the discovery process.

Airport commission spokesman Pat Hogan declined to comment on the lawsuit, except to say, “We believe the airport police appropriately responded to U.S. Airways’ call for assistance. That is what we have contended all along and that is still what we believe.”

Some lawyers have said that suing passengers could set a “chilling” precedent, but question whether the courts would allow such charges to proceed.

“If [the passengers] acted within reason, and took a reasonable course of action, they may not be subject to liability,” said Victor Schwartz, a partner with Shook Hardy & Bacon LLP in Washington and general counsel for the American Tort Reform Association.

Several lawyers, including Mr. Malone and Mr. Nolting, contacted, a site operated by Minnesota and Washington lawyers, urging fellow litigators to step forward and defend passengers pro bono.

“I would hope thousands of lawyers would come forward, we need a massive showing of support, we need to let people who would intimidate us know it is not going to stand. This is where we draw the line,” Mr. Malone said.

“No one is against freedom of religion or the right to pray, it is fundamental to our society. But that does not mean that we use it as a cover or use it to intimidate people. There are scary things going on in this world, and people need to understand that and be observant.”

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