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US court keeps public out of hearing into death of Black Muslim man

The decision to seal the hearing in a lawsuit over the death of Muhammad Muhaymin Jr has been condemned by civil rights groups
The case had been revisited following the mass protests in the aftermath of Floyd's death and the release of the bodycam footage.
The case has been revisited following mass protests in the aftermath of George Floyd's death and the release of bodycam footage (AFP)

A federal judge in the US state of Arizona ordered the public to be kept out of Tuesday's hearing regarding a $10m wrongful death lawsuit against the city of Phoenix and 10 of its police officers.

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The lawsuit was filed by the family of Muhammad Muhaymin Jr, who died in 2017 while being pinned down by police, with one officer having his knee pressed down on Muhaymin's head and neck - as shown in police bodycam footage revealed last year.

The case has drawn comparisons with the police killing of George Floyd last year, and was revisited following the release of the bodycam footage.

The decision to seal the hearing and related court documents was criticised by rights groups and the family's attorney, who said that it makes it seem as if the city of Phoenix "has something to hide".

"The problem with policing is there's not enough transparency, which means that the community doesn't trust the police," David Chami, an attorney for Muhaymin's family, told Middle East Eye.

"And I think sealing these documents and this process, just helps to foster more mistrust of our judicial system."

Muslim Advocates, a civil rights group, condemned the decision and said the lawsuit was the "best chance for the public to see whether police can be held accountable for this violence".

"The abrupt, last-minute decision to seal this previously public hearing without explanation is outrageous," Scott Simpson, advocacy director at Muslim Advocates, said in a statement.

"The people of Phoenix and the public have a clear interest in the facts of this case and it's deeply troubling that the court wants these proceedings to happen behind closed doors."

Denied justice

The incident in Phoenix began when the 43-year-old Muhaymin - a Muslim man who was living with Schizophrenia and who struggled with intermittent homelessness - tried to carry his service dog into the public restroom of a community service centre.

After an argument with the centre's management over allowing the dog to enter the bathroom, the police were called.

While the police initially allowed Muhaymin to enter the bathroom, officers conducted a background check and found a warrant on his record for failing to appear in court.

After returning from the bathroom, officers tried to arrest him and at least four officers ended up on top of him, pinning him down. Within eight minutes, he was dead.

In the footage, one officer can be heard responding to Muhaymin's pleas for help, saying "Allah? He's not going to help you right now."

Simpson told Middle East Eye that Muhaymin's family had been attempting to seek justice and accountability over the death at the county, city, and now federal level, but so far had been denied at every turn.

All the officers involved in the incident remained working in the police department, and one was promoted, according to Simpson - who said he last checked several months ago.

"All we want is our day in court and an opportunity to look at the people who killed Muhammad in the eye and ask them why," Mussalina, Muhaymin's sister, said in a statement last week.

"We're not willingly choosing to relive the worst day of our lives over and over again for profit or fame. We’re fighting for accountability and to make sure that the city of Phoenix and the Phoenix Police Department know that they can’t let this happen ever again."