Thursday, April 19, 2007

New York City politicians gearing up for the next mayoral and City Council races are seizing on the issue of “John Doe” passengers being sued for reporting activities that may be terrorist-related.

“I want to stir the pot,” said John Catsimatidis, a Republican mayoral candidate who took out a full-page in the New York Post today criticizing the lawsuit and calling on Washington lawmakers to pass a bill giving future John Does legal protection.

“I want to set the agenda and set what the priorities are, and one of the biggest priorities is keeping New York safe,” said the billionaire chairman of the Red Apple Group, a private company with diversified holdings in oil refineries, supermarkets and real estate. “We’ll fire the torpedos and see where the pebbles go, but what I want to do is make New York politicians more accountable.

“Imams suing American Citizens,” reads the headline over the full-page advertisement. “A lawsuit that threatens our security.”

The ad recounts the Nov. 20 incident when the six imams were removed from U.S. Airways Flight 300 from Minneapolis to Phoenix after the flight crew and passengers reported suspicious activity. The imams sat in some seats not assigned to them, formed a pattern similar to the September 11, 2001, hijackings, asked for seat-belt extensions, and criticized the war in Iraq and President Bush.

Last month the imams, with legal representation by Omar Mohammedi, filed suit against the airline and unnamed passengers, or John Does. The lawsuit prompted action by House Republicans who used a procedural motion to tuck passenger protection language inside a rail-safety bill.

Rep. Anthony Weiner, also running for mayor, is the only New York Democrat to vote in favor of the measure, which passed March 27 on a 304-121 vote.

Mr. Mohammedi did not return a call for comment. The lawsuit asserts that the imams were discriminated against by US Airways, the Minneapolis-St. Paul Metropolitan Airports Commission and John Doe passengers to be named later. The lawsuit identifies possible John Does as individuals who “may have made false reports against plaintiffs solely with the intent to discriminate against them on the basis of their race, religion, ethnicity and national origin.”

The ad says that “as a result of this lawsuit, all of New York’s security can be put at risk by holding the threat of legal action over New Yorkers.”

“This would have a chilling effect on any citizen who wanted to report a potentially threatening incident. Combating crime depends on the involvement of all of us. Eyes and ears on the street are important components of effective police work. Combating international terrorism deserves the same vigilance from ordinary folk,” the ad says.

Mr. Catsimatidis is urging the council to pass a resolution in support of New York Republican Rep. Peter T. King’s measure, which Queens council member Hiram Monserrate said he will introduce.

If the language is removed when the House and Senate meet in conference about the bill, Mr. Catsimatidis said, “I’ll take out another ad and point out who did it to let the people know who is compromising our security.”

A State Assembly member has called for the imams’ attorney, Mr. Mohammedi, who also serves on the city’s Human Rights Commission, to resign his position, and Mr. Catsimatidis agrees.

“This is a free country and he can do whatever he wants, but I don’t think he is representing the people of New York at this point,” Mr. Catsimatidis said.

In a letter to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a public interest law firm last month, the director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), which is supporting the lawsuit, said, “The only individuals against whom suit may be raised in this litigation are those who may have knowingly made false reports against the imams with the intent to discriminate against them.

“The imams will not sue any passengers who reported suspicious activity in good faith, even when the ‘suspicious’ behavior included the imams’ constitutionally protected right to practice their religion without fear or intimidation,” Director Nihad Awad said. “When a person makes a false report with the intent to discriminate, he or she is not acting in good faith.”

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