A Malaysian professor who claims she was mistakenly placed on the government’s no-fly list and arrested at San Francisco International Airport in 2005 has won the right from a U.S. appeals court to go ahead with a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the FBI.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said on Wednesday that Rahinah Ibrahim, who holds a Ph.D. from Stanford University, had enough of a connection with the United States to allow her to sue in an American court.
Judge William Fletcher wrote, “She has established a substantial voluntary connection with the United States through her Ph.D. studies at a distinguished American university, and she wishes to maintain that connection.”
Ibrahim, 48, a Malaysian citizen who has never been accused of any crimes, is dean of the Faculty of Design and Architecture at University Putra Malaysia.
In her 2006 lawsuit, she is seeking to learn whether she is on the U.S. government’s no-fly list or any other watchlist and if so, to obtain an injunction clearing her name so that she can return to the United States for professional projects and conferences.
One of her lawyers, Marwa Elzankaly, of San Jose, said, “We’re very excited about this ruling.
“The 9th Circuit has confirmed Ms. Ibrahim’s right to be heard and to challenge the placement of her name on any government watchlist,” Elzankaly said.
The attorney said she knew of no reason why Ibrahim might have been placed on the no-fly list developed by the government to block travel by terrorists and terrorism suspects.
But Elzankaly noted that the appeals court said that mistakes on the watchlists are common and that Ibrahim’s claim that she was erroneously listed “is not implausible, given the frequent mistakes the government has made in placing names on these lists.”
Ibrahim had been a doctoral student at Stanford for four years and was close to completing her doctorate in construction engineering, with a specialty in affordable housing, when she was arrested at San Francisco International Airport on Jan. 2, 2005.
She was on her way to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to present her research findings at a conference sponsored by Stanford.
A Muslim, Ibrahim was wearing a head scarf. She was in a wheelchair because she was recovering from surgery and she was accompanied by her 14-year-old daughter.
Her lawsuit alleges that a United Airlines employee discovered her name on the government’s no-fly list and called San Francisco police, who arrested and handcuffed her and placed her in a holding cell for two hours.
After two hours, the FBI ordered her release and an unidentified person told her she was no longer on the no-fly list, the suit says.
But the next day, when Ibrahim sought to take another flight to Kuala Lumpur, she was told she was still on the no-fly list. She was nevertheless allowed to fly to Malaysia, with extra screening at stops along the way, but was not allowed to return to the United States as planned two months later.
Ibrahim sought to clear her name by filing a request with the U.S. Transportation Security Administration’s passenger identity verification program in March 2005.
She did not receive a response until a year later, after she had filed her lawsuit. The response was a form letter saying that if a correction to the TSA’s records was warranted, the correction had been made. But it did not say whether she was, or had been, on the no-fly list or any other watchlist, or whether any change was in fact made.
Ibrahim was also told in 2005 that her student visa had been canceled on grounds of a U.S. law barring visitors who have engaged in or are suspected of terrorism. She was given the same reason, but no details, when she was denied a visa after applying again in 2009, her lawsuit says.
Elzankaly said Ibrahim was allowed by Stanford to complete her doctoral work while in Malaysia. She received the Ph.D. degree in 2005.
Ibrahim wants to return to the United States to work on a long-term project with Stanford to improve Malaysia’s construction industry, attend conferences and visit friends, according to the appeals court ruling.
In the decision, a three-judge panel by a 2-1 vote overturned a 2009 ruling in which U.S. District Judge William Alsup of San Francisco dismissed the Homeland Security Department and other federal agencies as defendants. Alsup said Ibrahim could not sue for future court orders against the agencies because she was not a U.S. resident and had left the country.
But Fletcher wrote in the majority ruling that the case was governed by a U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing such lawsuits when a non-resident who is outside the country has established “a significant voluntary connection” with the United States.
Ibrahim established that connection by attending Stanford and planning to return to finish her doctorate, he said.
Unless the U.S. Justice Department successfully appeals to an expanded appeals panel or to the U.S. Supreme Court, the ruling permits Ibrahim to return to Alsup’s court for a trial on the lawsuit.
In another part of his ruling in 2009, Alsup allowed Ibrahim to proceed with claims against San Francisco police, the airport and a private government contractor for alleged past actions in the 2005 airport arrest when Ibrahim was still in the United States.
Ibrahim agreed in 2010 to settle those claims for $175,000 from the San Francisco Police Department and airport and $50,000 from the contractor, U.S. Investigative Services, LLC.
Julia Cheever, Bay City News