Judge Slams Government for “Stubborn Refusal” to Follow the Law in 8-Year-old No-Fly Case

Wednesday, December 26, 2012
Rahinah Ibrahim

A novel legal challenge to the federal government’s no-fly “terrorist” list gained some traction in U.S. District Court when Judge William Alsup ruled that the federal government should stop delaying and go to trial over a lawsuit brought by Stanford University Ph.D. graduate Rahinah Ibrahim.

Alsup criticized the government’s “persistent and stubborn refusal to follow the statute” that governs the no-fly list, which the Malaysian citizen ran afoul of nearly eight years ago.

Ibrahim was detained at San Francisco International Airport on January 2, 2005, while waiting to board a plane with her daughter for a flight back to her native country where she was to present her doctoral research at a Stanford-sponsored conference. Although she was in a wheelchair after suffering complications from a recent hysterectomy, the authorities told her she was on the no-fly list, handcuffed her and put her in a jail holding cell for two hours.

After her release, Ibrahim was told she could fly and left the next day. When she tried to return to the states, she was told she was, indeed, still on the list and could not come back. Ibrahim sued the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the FBI, demanding to see the files they claim support the restriction. The government says the material is classified and, in her case, argues that she has no standing to sue because she has no direct connection to the United States. She continues to do work for Stanford in Malaysia.

The national no-fly list has an estimated 20,000 names on it and is coordinated with other lists of mostly foreigners that have more than 400,000 entries.

In February 2012, 9th Circuit Court Judge William Fletcher wrote for a 2-1 majority that Ibrahim deserved her day in court and took dead aim at the no-fly list accuracy.

“Tens of thousands of travelers have been misidentified because of misspellings and transcription errors in the nomination process, and because of computer algorithms that imperfectly match travelers against the names on the list,” Fletcher wrote.      

Ibrahim’s lawsuit is considered novel because rather than attack the law which created the no-fly list, which has proved futile in the past, her lawyers focused on the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center that administers the list, which lacks the same immunity.

The appellate court sent the case back to District Court, where Judge Alsup told the government it must turn over the material requested by Ibrahim’s lawyers. After “six years and two unsuccessful appeals by the government, it is time to resolve this case on the merits,” he said. “The court needs the cooperation and assistance of counsel to do so.”

There is no indication Judge Alsup will receive it.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

Feds Blasted for Trying Dismiss Case in Secret (by Chris Marshall, Courthouse News Service)

3 Calif. Residents Battle in Court over No-Fly List (by G.W. Schulz, California Watch)

Stanford Grad Continues Fight to Get off No-Fly List (by G.W. Schulz, California Watch)

Ensnared by Error on Growing U.S. Watch List (by Mike McIntire, New York Times)

Many of 500 Americans on No-Fly List Don’t Know Why (by Matt Bewig, AllGov)

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