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Muslim Americans confident 'terror watchlist' will soon be ruled unconstitutional

US watchlist violates right to due process and unfairly targets Muslim-Americans, plaintiffs say
Americans are put on terror watchlist based 'on vague, overbroad standards and secret evidence,' ACLU says (AFP/File photo)

Muslim-American advocates are confident that a US federal judge will soon rule in their favour in a lawsuit they filed in 2016 challenging the constitutionality of the FBI's terrorist watchlist.

A hearing was held in the case on 4 April in Arlington, Virginia, just outside of the US capital Washington.

Hassan Shibly, executive director of the Florida chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and one of 23 Muslim-American plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said he expected the judge to deliver a decision soon.

"Growing up as an American Muslim, unfortunately, I felt I have been treated as a second-class citizen at the hands of my government since I was a teenager," Shibly said during a news conference after the hearing.

'Lives are being destroyed by this watchlist'

- Lena Masri, The Council on American-Islamic Relations

The US government's watchlist counts more than one million names, both US citizens and foreigners, who are considered to be "known or suspected terrorists", according to the court filings.

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Washington justifies its use of the watchlist on the basis of national security.

But civil rights advocates and other groups say it amounts to an unconstitutional breach of due process and unfairly targets Muslim Americans in particular.

Shibly said being on the watchlist has been tantamount to being treated as a "criminal" when travelling. He said he can be questioned for hours and sometimes even detained when leaving and entering the US, all because his name is on the list.

"This overly broad list ultimately makes us less safe and less free, and in order to protect our country's safety, security and liberty, we are challenging the watchlist together," Shibly said.

CAIR and others, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), have filed various lawsuits around the country challenging the constitutionality of the federal government's watchlist system.

It was not immediately clear when the judge will deliver a final ruling in the CAIR case.

'Vague, overbroad standards'

According to the ACLU, Americans are put on the list as terrorism suspects based "on vague, overbroad standards and secret evidence".

"The consequences can be devastating, from repeated questioning and harassment by law enforcement officials to an indefinite ban on air travel," the ACLU says on its website.

"To make matters worse, the network of watchlists has been found to be riddled with errors, and watchlisted individuals don't have a meaningful way to correct errors and clear their names."

During Thursday's news conference, Lena Masri, legal director for CAIR's Michigan chapter, shared detailed personal stories of the plaintiffs named in the lawsuit.

One couple has not been able to get spousal immigration papers approved for a decade, Masri said, while one man decided to move to Europe after being intimidated and threatened at gunpoint during a US border crossing. 

"Lives are being destroyed by this watchlist," Masri said.

"This watchlist is an attack on the Muslim community and we are confident the judge will see the watchlist for what it is and declare it unconstitutional for violating due process rights for thousands of Muslims," she added.

Individuals on the watchlist have had their bank accounts closed without warning, have been denied the ability to make wire transfers, suffered delays and interrogations at airports and other border crossings, and cannot work certain jobs.

The watchlist, established in 2003, is maintained by the US government's Terrorist Screening Centre, a division of the national security branch of the FBI.

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