The U.S. government's no-fly list banning individuals it accuses of links to terrorism from boarding commercial flights is unconstitutional as it gives people affected no meaningful way to contest the decision, a federal judge ruled on Tuesday.
U.S. District Judge Anna Brown, ruling on a lawsuit filed in federal court in Oregon by 13 American citizens with “no-fly” status, ordered the government to come up with new procedures that allow people on the list to challenge that designation.
Among the plaintiffs were four U.S. military veterans, all denying any ties to terrorism, who said they only learned of their status when they were blocked from boarding a flight.
"The court concludes international travel is not a mere convenience or luxury in this modern world. Indeed, for many international travel is a necessary aspect of liberties sacred to members of a free society," Brown wrote in her 65-page ruling.
"Accordingly, on this record the court concludes plaintiffs inclusion on the no-fly list constitutes a significant deprivation of their liberty interests in international travel," Brown said.
The decision hands a major victory to the 13 Muslim American plaintiffs — who had all been denied boarding due to their placement on the list, and said they have never been charged with a terrorism-related offense, The Oregonian, a local news website, reported.
One of the plaintiffs, Sheikh Mohamed Kariye — the religious leader or Masjed As-Saber, Portland, Oregon’s largest mosque — said he was refused boarding in 2010 and has since been unable to travel overseas to visit his daughter or accompany his mother on a religious pilgrimage, according to The Oregonian.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which brought suit against the government’s policy in 2010, argues that secrecy surrounding the list and lack of any reasonable opportunity for plaintiffs to fight their placement on it violates their clients' constitutional rights to due process.
“For years, in the name of national security the government has argued for blanket secrecy and judicial deference to its profoundly unfair no-fly list procedures and those arguments have now been resoundingly rejected by the court," Hina Shamsi, the ACLU's national security project director, said in a written statement.
"This excellent decision also benefits other people wrongly stuck on the no-fly list with the promise of a way out from a Kafkaesque bureaucracy causing them no end of grief and hardships," Shamsi said.
The government contends there is an adequate means of contesting the flight ban and that individuals listed under the policy may ultimately petition a U.S. appeals court directly for relief.
Attorneys for the U.S. Department of Justice, which defended the lawsuit, declined to comment, other than to say they needed more time to read the ruling.
The no-fly list, established in 2003 in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, bars those on it from flying within the United States or to and from the country. As of last year, it included some 20,000 people deemed by the FBI as having, or reasonably suspected of having, ties to terrorism, an agency spokesman said at the time. About 500 of them were U.S. citizens.
Al Jazeera and Reuters