A federal judge ruled on Thursday that the New York Police Department's (NYPD) surveillance of Muslim Americans in New Jersey was a lawful effort to prevent terrorism, not a civil-rights violation.
In a decision filed in federal court in Newark, N.J., U.S. District Judge William Martini dismissed a lawsuit brought in 2012 by eight Muslims who alleged the NYPD's surveillance programs were unconstitutional because they focused on religion, national origin and race. The suit accused the department of spying on ordinary people at mosques, restaurants and schools in New Jersey since 2002.
Martini said he was not convinced the plaintiffs were targeted solely because of their religion. "The more likely explanation for the surveillance was to locate budding terrorist conspiracies," he wrote.
The judge added: "The police could not have monitored New Jersey for Muslim terrorist activities without monitoring the Muslim community itself."
Farhaj Hassan, a plaintiff in the case and a U.S. soldier who served in Iraq, said he was disappointed by the ruling.
"I have dedicated my career to serving my country, and this just feels like a slap in the face — all because of the way I pray," he said.
The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) in New York and the California-based civil rights organization Muslim Advocates, which represented the plaintiffs, also called the decision troubling.
"In addition to willfully ignoring the harm that our innocent clients suffered from the NYPD's illegal spying program, by upholding the NYPD's blunderbuss Muslim surveillance practices, the court's decision gives legal sanction to the targeted discrimination of Muslims anywhere and everywhere in this country, without limitation, for no other reason than their religion," CCR Legal Director Baher Azmy said.
Linda Sarsour, the executive director of the Arab American Association of New York, helped mount a similar lawsuit against NYPD and New York officials together with the New York American Civil Liberties Union on the behalf of five plaintiffs – including community members, mosques and charities.
Thursday’s “decision legalizes discrimination,” Sarsour told Al Jazeera, calling the decision “absurd” and “outrageous.”
“It’s almost like reading The Onion,” she added.
However, Sarsour said her lawsuit is ongoing and will continue unhindered.
“We’re still fighting. The fight has just begun,” she said.
The lawsuits followed a series of stories by The Associated Press based on confidential NYPD documents that revealed how the department sought to infiltrate dozens of mosques and Muslim student groups in New York and elsewhere.
Martini faulted the AP for its use of the documents.
"The Associated Press covertly obtained the materials and published them without authorization," he wrote. "Thus the injury, if any existed, is not fairly traceable to the city."
The AP declined to comment on the ruling.
The city's legal department also declined comment. Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly had been staunch supporters of the surveillance programs, saying they were needed to protect the city from terrorist attacks.
A similar lawsuit filed in federal court in Brooklyn is still pending.
Al Jazeera and The Associated Press