LOS ANGELES — In 2006 the FBI used an undercover agent to infiltrate one of the largest and most diverse mosques in Orange County. The informant, pretending to convert to Islam, was directed to gather information on mosque attendees not because they had committed any crimes or even planned any illegal activity, but simply because they were Muslims.
Today, in a landmark victory for freedom of religion and human rights, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit issued a decision establishing that the courthouse doors remain open to members of the Muslim community who challenge unlawful government surveillance against them. It ruled the government could not bar the plaintiffs from obtaining their day in court simply by raising the specter of "terrorism" and "national security."
The class action case, Fazaga v. FBI, was brought in 2011 by the ACLU Foundation of Southern California, the Council for American-Islamic Relations of Greater Los Angeles, and the law firm Hadsell Stormer & Renick LLP.
In its decision today, the Court specifically provided an avenue for the plaintiffs to vindicate their constitutional rights through procedures established by Congress in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The Court also ruled that the plaintiffs have a right to force the government to delete from its files information it illegally collected about them. The decision also allows the plaintiffs the opportunity to seek money damages for the FBI's allegedly unlawful electronic wiretapping of their homes and offices.
"Muslims in this country deserve the same freedom that protect all other religious groups: the right to practice their faith in peace without fear of government intrusion," said Yassir Fazaga, President of the Orange County-based Tanweer Institute and lead plaintiff in the case. "We are grateful that today's decision gives our community in Orange County the opportunity to protect these rights in court."
Ahilan Arulanantham, Senior Counsel at the ACLU SoCal said: "The Ninth Circuit's decision is a victory for everyone who believes in the rule of law. It rejects the government's request that the courts close their eyes to this shameful chapter of FBI surveillance of Muslims because it was a 'state secret.' Most important, it creates the possibility of justice for our clients and others who were targeted just because of their religion. We look forward to holding the government accountable before the district court."
Hussam Ayloush, Executive Director of the Council on American Islamic Relations-Greater Los Angeles Area, said: "Today's Ninth Circuit decision is a huge victory for the American Muslim community and a confirmation that the FBI has no business conducting surveillance projects in mosques. For years our community has been told to accept that FBI surveillance and profiling of Muslims is necessary. We therefore applaud the Ninth Circuit for its holding that Muslims can challenge the government when being subjected to illegal surveillance."
Dan Stormer, partner at Hadsell Stormer & Renick LLP, said, "Today's ruling puts to bed the government's erection of a Kafka-esque wall preventing our clients from having their day in court. After tearing down this wall, we look forward to the day we secure justice for Orange County's Muslim community."
Read the decision here: https://www.aclusocal.org/sites/default/files/124-1_opn_9cir_opinion_02282919.pdf