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NYPD defends use of Muslim informants to fight terrorism

File - A specialist police unit that sought to infiltrate Muslim communities was disbanded in April, following protests last year.

NEW YORK: The New York Police Department disbanded a unit that tracked the everyday lives of Muslims, but it has taken a tough stance in a heated legal battle over its continuing use of Muslim informants in terror threat investigations.

Muslim groups filed a civil rights lawsuit last year asking a federal judge to declare the surveillance unconstitutional and halt it.

City lawyers struck back by suggesting the plaintiffs had brought the attention on themselves with “rhetoric or their known, suspected or rumored associations with people or organizations of ill repute.”

The city then demanded access to any communications by the plaintiffs – including two Brooklyn mosques, an imam and a Muslim charity – that mention terrorism, jihad or the war in Afghanistan as well as financial records from the mosques and the charity, including names of donors.

The plaintiffs say the city is unjustly seeking private information. Disclosure of records from the mosque and the charity “would further alienate and chill congregants, members, donors and donees ... and thereby infringe on plaintiffs’ right to free exercise, free speech and associational privacy,” their lawyers wrote in court papers in late March.

The court fight is reinforcing skepticism about pledges by the city’s new mayor, Democrat Bill de Blasio, and NYPD officials to be more sensitive than the previous administration to concerns about surveillance.

Last month, the largest U.S police department announced it had disbanded the Demographics Unit, a team of detectives assigned to create databases on where Muslims lived, shopped, worked and prayed. Civil rights advocates, however, noted that the department was not committing to abandoning a practice adopted after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks of using Muslim informants to try to detect and thwart terror threats.

The New York Times, citing internal NYPD documents, reported this week that the police department’s Intelligence Division is continuing to debrief Muslims arrested for petty offenses to see what they know about other crimes and if some could be persuaded to volunteer as informants.

Police Commissioner William Bratton defended the debriefings Tuesday on a visit to Israel, telling the Jerusalem Post that they are “an essential element of policing” that does not single out Muslims. City lawyers also say the NYPD puts people under surveillance for legitimate investigative reasons, not because of their ethnicity or religion.

But Muslim advocates say the program sends the wrong message.

“Those who had looked to Mayor de Blasio for real meaningful changes in policing and relationships with Muslims are disappointed,” said Hina Shamsi, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer on the case.

Linda Sarsour, the executive director of the Arab American Association of New York, says critics of the program do not object to police recruiting informants who have a meaningful connection to suspected crimes, as in drug or mob cases. But most of the Muslim men who have been approached “have zero information that’s helpful. ... This is straight-up racial and religious profiling,” she said.

One Muslim New Yorker, Hesham al-Meligy, recalled his dismay at learning that a man he encountered at an Islamic bookstore in the early 2000s was an informant who police say uncovered a plot to blow up a Manhattan subway station. He claimed he overheard the informant trying to “incite” a dim-witted store worker to turn against the U.S.

Reminders that informants are still in circulation “add to the distrust of government and law enforcement that’s already there,” said the Egypt-born Meligy.

“Unfortunately, we started suspecting each other as well. It creates an atmosphere of hysteria.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 15, 2014, on page 10.

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