Local U.S. citizens stopped at airports repeatedly and don’t know why

Men score victory in legal fight over terror list
‘STATE SECRETS’ | Local U.S. citizens stopped at airports repeatedly — and don’t know why

April 24, 2008

BY ANDREW HERRMANN Staff Reporter/aherrmann@suntimes.com

For software exec Akif Rahman of Wheaton and Bridgeview filmmaker Oussama Jammal, international travel carries more than just the usual hassles.

Rahman, who was born in Springfield, and Jammal, a U.S. citizen since 2001, have been stopped separately by U.S. authorities more than a dozen times. In one instance, Rahman says, he was shackled to a chair for three hours at the Detroit-Windsor crossing while his wife and two children were kept in another room.

They’re not terrorists, they say. But something is causing them to be flagged as such.

The two — and six other U.S. citizens with Middle Eastern or south Asian ancestry who have been repeatedly stopped — are hoping their ordeal may be coming to an end following a recent federal court ruling here.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Sidney Schenkier has ordered the Department of Homeland Security to say whether Rahman, Jammal and the other plaintiffs are on the Terrorist Screening Database watchlist — a disclosure authorities have argued could compromise national security. The judge will also look at FBI files and decide whether Rahman, Jammal and the others may see them.

Federal authorities have asked for an extension and the case may, through appeals, continue to wind its way through the courts for some time. But the American Civil Liberties Union, which represented the plaintiffs, is declaring the judge’s ruling a blow against what the group sees as the Bush administration’s abuse of its "state secrets" privilege.

ACLU attorney Harvey Grossman said he believes the eight either share the same name and birthdate with someone on the watchlist or are improperly classified as serious threats. In his ruling, Schenkier noted that, by and large, the government has a right to protect the secrecy of the terrorist watch list but that in this case, authorities, in letters to congressmen about the plaintiff’s cases, undercut their argument.

Rahman said even with the lawsuit, he keeps getting detained. He was pulled aside and questioned for about 15 minutes three weeks ago at O’Hare and in March he was detained at Los Angeles International Airport for an hour and a half. That incident, which occurred on a return from Hong Kong, caused him to miss his flight home to Chicago.

After a family vacation in Mexico, he, his wife and two young children were escorted from the plane at O’Hare. "It’s troubling to have my little kids see that and have that as memory,” said Rahman.

Both businessmen feel abused.

"If there’s anything there, they should tell us or otherwise it’s simply discrimination against an American citizen," said Jammal, whose Fine Media Group film company makes educational cartoons for Muslim children.

The government has said revealing who is on the watchlist could cause would-be terrorists to change their names or alter their approach.

Jammal, who is from Lebanon, said all Americans "have a great stake in this."

"We’ve discriminated against the Japanese and the Germans and the Irish and the Jews and the blacks. Now it’s the Arabs and Muslims. Tomorrow, we don’t know who will be next,” said Jammal.

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