A federal judge in San Francisco has ordered the name of a Malaysian architecture professor removed from the U.S. government’s no-fly list.
U.S. District Judge William Alsup said Tuesday in a two-page court filing that Rahinah Ibrahim’s inclusion on the list was a mistake. The ruling marks the first time someone has successfully challenged being included on the no-fly list.
Alsup ordered her name stricken from the list — if, in fact, it is still on it. The judge kept his detailed ruling under seal until April 15 so the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals can rule on the government’s appeal to toss out the lawsuit.
The U.S. Department of Justice has refused to disclose Ibrahim’s current flight status throughout her eight-year legal fight, including during a two-week bench trial late last year. Several similar lawsuits are pending across the nation, but Ibrahim’s legal challenge appears to be the first to go to trial.
The two-page filing the judge released publicly was only a notice that the former Stanford University doctoral candidate had prevailed in a fight to clear her name that began with her arrest at San Francisco International Airport in 2005 and authorities telling her she was on the no-fly list.
Ibrahim said she was mistakenly placed on the list because of her national origin and Muslim faith. Ibrahim testified via videotape during the trial that the FBI visited her Stanford apartment the month before her arrest and asked whether she had connections to the Malaysian terror group, Jemaah Islamiyah. She denied any connections to the group specifically or terrorism generally.
The government argues that national security interests could be jeopardized if it is forced to disclose — while defending the lawsuit in open court — how Ibrahim was initially placed on the list and whether she remains on it. Government attorneys didn’t disclose many details during the two-week trial and objected repeatedly when Ibrahim’s attorneys asked detailed questions of witnesses.
Nonetheless, the judge made clear in his court filing Tuesday that he believed Ibrahim was initially placed on the no-fly list by mistake.
The judge said the evidence presented at trial “shows that the action resulted from an error by the government” and that the remedy “requires the government to cleanse and/or correct its lists and records of the mistaken information and to certify under oath that such correction(s) have been made.”
KQED’s Mina Kim talked on Wednesday with Stanford law professor Shirin Sinnar, who specializes in national security and counterterrorism law, and testified as an expert witness in the trial:
“Never before has a federal court actually said that the current procedures for trying to get off the list violate constitutional due process,” Sinnar said. “The challenge is to design a process that enables the government to realize its legitimate security objectives without sacrificing the basic liberties of individuals. The process right now has swung too far in the direction of permitting the government to list people without a sufficient, meaningful way for people to contest their inclusion.”
Judge Alsup said by certifying that Ibrahim’s name is no longer on the list, “the government concedes that plaintiff is not a threat to our national security.”
The U.S. Department of Justice press office in Washington, D.C., didn’t return a phone call and email inquiry placed late Tuesday.
“Justice has finally been done for our client, an innocent woman who was wrongly ensnared in the government’s flawed watch listing system,” said Elizabeth Pipkin, Ibrahim’s attorney.
Ibrahim, 48, lives in Malaysia with her husband and four children and is dean of the architecture and engineering school at the University of Malaysia. She has been barred from returning to the United States since her arrest in 2005 on her way to a scientific conference in Hawaii.
The judge said he was powerless to order the government to issue Ibrahim a visa and allow her return to the United States, but he did order that she be given a reason for any denial of re-entry.
The U.S. government has refused to disclose how many people are on its no-fly list. The list is drawn from the U.S. National Counter-Terrorism Center list of suspected terrorists that authorities said contained 875,000 names as of May.
Here’s Judge Alsup’s public notice in the case, issued Tuesday: