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US Supreme Court to hear case on FBI surveillance of California Muslims

FBI informant, who reportedly encouraged people to visit 'jihadist' websites, was reported to police by a California mosque in 2007 after expressing violent views
Monday's decision marks the second 'state secrets' case set to be brought up at the Supreme Court when it comes back from summer recess in October 2021 (AFP/File photo)

The United States Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case involving a group of Muslim Americans who accused the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) of illegally targeting them for surveillance because of their religion. 

The court said on Monday that it will listen to the case and begin hearing arguments in October after the summer recess.

According to Courthouse News, the case revolves around three Muslims living in California who allege the FBI paid a confidential informant to spy on Muslims in Orange County from 2006 to 2007. 

According to court papers, the plaintiffs - Yassir Fazaga, an imam at the Orange County Islamic Foundation in Mission Viejo; Ali Uddin Malik, who attended the Islamic Center of Irvine; and Yasser Abdel Rahim, who also attended the Islamic Center of Irvine - accused the FBI of hiring a man named Craig Monteilh to gather information on Muslims as part of a post-9/11 counterterrorism investigation. 

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Courthouse News reported that Monteilh met with Muslims in southern California, adopted a Muslim name and said he wanted to convert to Islam.

He reportedly encouraged people to visit "jihadist" websites, worked out with certain people at the gym, and tried to obtain compromising information that could be used later to enlist other informants. 

According to the agency, the investigation unravelled in 2007 when a mosque leader called the police because Monteilh had begun to express his readiness to engage in violence.

That June, the Irvine mosque sought and obtained a restraining order against Monteilh, and two years later his identity as an informant was exposed, it reported.

The plaintiffs allege that the FBI was in direct violation of the US Constitution's Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures, as well as the First Amendment because it had been targeting Muslims for surveillance specifically due to their religion. 

A district court had initially dismissed the case because the federal government invoked national security privileges and the court agreed that continuing the case would "greatly risk disclosure of secret information". 

An appeals court later reversed the ruling, saying that the "state secrets" claims should instead be analysed under a section of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, known as FISA, that lets judges review the disputed information in a closed-door hearing to decide whether the surveillance was warranted.

That ruling led the FBI to request an appeal at the Supreme Court. 

State secrets in Gitmo

The other "state secrets" case the high court is set to hear involves one of Guantanamo Bay's "forever prisoners", Zayn al-Abidin Muhammad Husayn, who is better known as Abu Zubaydah. 

The Supreme Court agreed in April to hear his case over the availability of secret evidence surrounding his torture and detention. 

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Abu Zubaydah wants to subpoena James E Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, two CIA contractors, in connection with a Polish criminal investigation that was brought up after the European Court of Human Rights ruled that he had been tortured in 2002 and 2003 at international CIA black sites. 

In 2019, a federal judge ruled in favour of the US government's attempts to block Abu Zubaydah's subpoena, saying it would "present an unacceptable risk of disclosing state secrets". But the Ninth Circuit appeals court later denied state secret protection to Mitchell and Jessen. 

Now the decision will be up to the US's highest court. 

The court did not comment on Monday, other than to say it would take the second "state secrets" case.