Tuesday, March 13, 2007

A group of imams yesterday filed a lawsuit against an airline and airport management, charging they were discriminated against when they were removed from a flight after frightened passengers and the crew complained the Muslim men were disruptive.

The six imams were removed from the Nov. 20 flight “on the basis of their perceived race, religion, color, ethnicity, alienate, ancestry and national origin,” claimed the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis against US Airways and the Minneapolis-St. Paul Metropolitan Airports Commission.

“Since the horrific events of September 11, 2001, our nation has witnessed an alarming rise in incidents of discrimination against Arabs and/or Muslims,” the lawsuit said.

The suit says 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.”

Andrea Rader, US Airways spokeswoman, said: “We haven’t seen this lawsuit and so do not have a comment at this time, except to say that we continue to back the actions of our crew and ground employees.”

Filing of the lawsuit was disclosed by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) at a press conference at its Capitol Hill headquarters. A reporter for The Washington Times and a cameraman for the Christian Broadcasting Network were barred and told that the press conference was a “private event.” Ibrahim Hooper, CAIR’s communications director, told reporters later: “I think you can imagine why.”

The Times first reported that witnesses and law-enforcement officials contradicted the imams’ statements that they were merely praying before the flight. The sources said the imams instead exhibited behavior associated with a so-called “security probe,” in which terrorists perform certain preliminary steps to see how law-enforcement and security officials react.

Patrick Hogan, airport commission spokesman, said the men reportedly made anti-American statements relating to the Iraq war, asked to change seats once inside the passenger cabin, and requested seat belt extenders, which include a heavy metal buckle that could be used as a weapon, that were not actually needed by any of the imams.

Witnesses said three of the imams were praying loudly in the concourse and repeatedly shouted “Allah” when passengers were called for boarding US Airways Flight 300 to Phoenix.

Passengers and flight attendants told law-enforcement officials the imams switched from their assigned seats to an intimidating pattern associated with the September 11 terrorist attacks and also found in probes of U.S. security since the attacks — two near the front, two in the middle of the plane on the exit aisle and two in the rear of the cabin.

One air marshal called the seating arrangement “alarming” because “they now control all of the entry and exit routes to the plane.” A pilot from another airline said: “That behavior has been identified as a terrorist probe in the airline industry.”

Three of the men asked for seat-belt extenders, although two flight attendants told police the men were not oversized. Rather than attach the extensions, the men placed the straps and buckles on the cabin floor, the flight attendant said.

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

“We were humiliated and treated as if we were criminals,” Mr. Faja said.

“When anyone’s rights are diminished, the rights of all Americans are threatened,” said Nihad Awad, CAIR director.

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, financial injury including lost business profits.”

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