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Muslims In N.J. File Federal Lawsuit To Stop NYPD Spying

New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly (file / credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly (file / credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) – A national Muslim civil rights organization filed a lawsuit against the NYPD today in Newark in response to the surveillance of Muslim-Americans in mosques, businesses and student groups.

1010 WINS’ Stan Brooks reports

It is the first lawsuit to directly challenge the NYPD’s surveillance programs, which were the subject of an investigative series by The Associated Press since last year. Based on internal NYPD reports and interviews with officials involved in the programs, the AP reported that the NYPD conducted wholesale surveillance of entire Muslim neighborhoods, chronicling daily life including where people ate, prayed and got their hair cut. Police infiltrated dozens of mosques and Muslim student groups and investigated hundreds more.

Abdul Kareem Muhammad, the Imam of Newark’s Masjid al-Haqq mosque, was listed in a secret NYPD intelligence report. So were Muslim schools, Muslim restaurants, Muslim-owned stores – all listed in the NYPD report.

Web Extra: Read The Complaint (.pdf) 

“This surveillance, this spying, without question, was– unjustified. And it was definite, without doubt, an invasion of our civil human and our constitutional rights,” Muhammad said.

Farhana Khera, Executive Director of Muslim Advocates, says no other religion seems to be under the same microscope. Muslim Advocates is the organization behind the lawsuit.

“Just to give you an example, there was reference in the documents to targeting, for example, the Iranian community, the Egyptian community, the Syrian community. But then there was explicit reference to the fact that they weren’t targeting Syrian Jews or Iranian Jews or Egyptian Christians, but really the focus was on Muslims.”

The lawsuit also charges that the NYPD monitored meetings and web postings of Muslim student associations. Moiz Mohammed, one of the plaintiffs, is a biology student at Rutgers. He denies such allegations.

“I personally have never heard it before. And I don’t think anyone would actually say that in public because all the other Muslims would not tolerate that behavior and that talk,” Mohammed said.

NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly and Mayor Michael Bloomberg have both defended the practice, saying that the information the NYPD collects is within the department’s guidelines which are approved and monitored by lawyers and a federal judge.

“We have to be cognizant of what we do,” Kelly told Charlie Rose back in February. “We have to check. We have to make sure that what we’re doing is within constitutional bounds. And that’s precisely what we’re doing.”

Syed Farhaj Hassan, one of the plaintiffs, stopped attending one mosque as often after he learned it was one of four where he worships that were included in NYPD files. Those mosques were located along the East Coast from central Connecticut to the Philadelphia suburbs, but none was linked to terrorism, either publicly or in the confidential NYPD documents.

Hassan, an Army reservist from a small town outside of New Brunswick, N.J., said he was concerned that anything linking his life to potential terrorism would hurt his military security clearance.

“Guilt by association was forced on me,” Hassan said.

The NYPD did not respond to questions about the lawsuit but noted the New Jersey attorney general determined last month that NYPD activities in New Jersey were legal.

Kelly has said his department is obligated to do this type of surveillance in order to protect New York from another 9/11. Kelly has said the 2001 attacks proved that New Yorkers could not rely solely on the federal government for protection, and the NYPD needed to enhance its efforts.

Hassan said he served in Iraq in 2003 to stop the atrocities of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s secret police.

“I didn’t know they had one across the Hudson,” he said, referring to the NYPD intelligence division.

“The NYPD program is founded upon a false and constitutionally impermissible premise: that Muslim religious identity is a legitimate criterion for selection of law-enforcement surveillance targets,” the lawsuit said.

New Jersey lawmakers were outraged earlier this year when they learned of the surveillance. But after a three-month review, the state’s attorney general found that the NYPD did not violate any state laws when it spied on Muslim neighborhoods and organizations. The attorney general found no recourse for the state of New Jersey to stop the NYPD from infiltrating Muslim student groups, video-taping mosque-goers or collecting their license plate numbers as they prayed.

No court has ruled that the NYPD programs were illegal. But the division operates without significant oversight: The New York City Council does not believe it has the expertise to oversee the intelligence division, and Congress believes the NYPD is not part of its jurisdiction even though the police department receives billions in federal funding each year.

Members of Congress and civil rights groups have urged the Justice Department to investigate the NYPD’s practices. A Justice Department spokeswoman said they are still reviewing the requests. Federal investigations into police departments typically focus on police abuse or racial profiling in arrests. Since 9/11, the Justice Department has never publicly investigated a police department for its surveillance in national security investigations.

Because of widespread civil rights abuses during the 1950s and 1960s, the NYPD has been limited by a court order in what intelligence it can gather on innocent people. Lawyers in that case have questioned whether the post-9/11 spying violates that order. The lawsuit filed Wednesday is a separate legal challenge.

The NYPD and New York officials have said the surveillance programs violated no one’s constitutional rights, and the NYPD is allowed to travel anywhere to collect information. Officials have said NYPD lawyers closely review the intelligence division’s programs.

“The constitutional violation that the NYPD did commit was blanket surveillance of a group based on religion,” said Glenn Katon, Muslim Advocate’s legal director. He said a program that treats people differently based on religion, national origin or race is subject to the Constitution. “That’s the crux of our claim,” he said.

(TM and © Copyright 2012 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2012 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)