Apr 27 2012

US citizen exiled to torture by “no-fly” list seeks asylum in Sweden

A US citizen who was imprisoned and tortured for three months by the US government’s “allies” in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, and who can’t come home even after being released from the UAE because the US government has put him on its “no-fly” list and forbidden any airline from transporting him to the US, has requested political asylum in Sweden.

Yonas Fikre came to the US with his family in 1991, when he was 12 years old, as a refugee from Eritrea, and later was naturalized as a US citizen.

In April 2010, while Fikre was abroad on business and visiting family, FBI agents contacted him to try to recruit him as an informer and agent provacateur in an FBI entrapment “sting” directed at members of a mosque Fikri had attended in Portland, Oregon. Fikre declined to become a snitch and infiltrator for the Feds, but the FBI followed up with implicitly threatening email messages that, “[T]he choice is yours to make. The time to help yourself is now.”

In June 2011, he was arrested in Abu Dhabi by plainclothes UAE police, who held him for three months in a secret prison in Dubai while torturing him, interrogating him about members of the Portland mosque, and telling him that he had been put on the US no-fly list and that he would never be released from their custody and torture or allowed to return to the US unless he “cooperated” with the FBI.

Eventually, he was released from detention and allowed to leave the UAE in September 2011 , but told the US still wouldn’t let him go home.  He’s been living in Sweden, where he has other relatives, since then, and has now applied for political asylum on the grounds that he has been effectively exiled from the US by being placed on the US no-fly list (in violation of his human rights under Article 12 of the ICCPR, to which the US and Sweden are both parties) and that his detention and torture in the UAE, presumably at the behest of the US government and/or its agents, gives him reasonable grounds to fear further mistreatment even if he were allowed to return to the US.

This isn’t the first time that the US government has used the no-fly list against US citizens as an as an instrument of exile. Here are just a few of the incidents, among others, that have previously made the news:

It isn’t just US citizens who have been denied their right to return home by the US no-fly list. As recently noted by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, the US no-fly list is used by US-flag airlines on flights elsewhere in the world, and is shared with at least 22 foreign governments. Some of the foreigners prevented from returning home, or from traveling to countries other than the US, as  a result of US no-fly orders or “no-board recommendations” from US “advisors” stationed at foreign airports, include:

  • Dawood Hepplewhite: UK citizen stranded in Canada and denied boarding on a flight home to the UK in February 2011.
  • Mohammed Khan: Canadian citizen stranded in Germany and denied boarding on a flight home to Canada in March 2011.
  • Moazzam Begg: UK citizen and former Guantanamo prisoner never charged with any crime in the US, UK, or any other country; denied boarding on a flight to Canada for public speaking engagements in May 2011.
Apr 26 2012

No-fly case goes forward against Feds, while SFO pays through the nose for false arrest of traveler

We’ve noted previously that, as the DHS increasingly relies on state and local law enforcement officers and private contractors to carry out its extrajudicial “no-fly”, search, and surveillance orders, those individuals and their employers face a growing risk of liability for their actions against travelers.

Case in point: Ibrahim v. DHS et al.

We’ve reported previously on some of the earlier stages in this case, originally filed in 2005 by a Malaysian architect, then a doctoral candidate at Stanford University and today (having received her Ph.D. from Stanford in absentia) a professor and Dean of the Faculty of Design and Architecture at UPM in Malaysia.  When she tried to check in at San Francisco International Airport (SFO) for a flight back to Malaysia to give a presentation about her Stanford research, she was arrested by SFO airport police (a branch of the San Francisco police force) on the direction of a private contractor who answered the phone at the TSA’s Transportation Security Operations Center (since renamed — we are not making this up — the “Freedom Center”).  She was told she was on the “no-fly” list, but was allowed to fly home to Malaysia the next day, after which her US student visa was revoked.

Through her lawyers in the US, Ibrahim sued the various Federal agencies involved in no-fly decisions; their individual officials, employees, and contractors; and the San Francisco city and county, airport, police department, and individual police officers, for violations of her 1st and 5th Amendment rights.

The case has a had a tortured procedural history. After seven years, there has been no discovery, fact-finding, or rulings on any of the substantive issues. The case has, however, survived a series of District Court rulings and two appeals to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, first in 2008 on which, if any, Federal court (district or circuit, in San Francisco or DC) had jurisdiction to hear the case, and then in February 2012 on whether Dr. Ibrahim had standing, as a non-US citizen now residing (involuntarily) outside the US, to bring her Constitutional claims in US courts.

The latest ruling by the 9th Circuit in Ibrahim v. DHS, which allows the case against the government and its agents to go forward, is significant for its rejection of several of the Federal government’s key arguments against judicial review of no-fly decisions:

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Apr 25 2012

European Parliament approves PNR agreement with the US. What’s next?

[MEPs picket outside the plenary chamber to ask their colleagues to say “No” to the PNR agreement with the US. (Photo by greensefa, some rights reserved under Creative Commons license, CC BY 2.0)”]

Last week — despite the demonstration shown above (more photos here) by Members of the European Parliament as their colleagues entered the plenary chamber for the vote — the European Parliament acquiesced, reluctantly, to an agreement with the US Department of Homeland Security to allow airlines that do business in the EU to give the DHS access to PNR (Passenger Name Record) data contained in their customers’ reservations for flights to or from the USA. (See our FAQ: Transfers of PNR Data from the European Union to the USA.)

The vote is a setback for civil liberties and the the fundamental right to freedom of movement, in both the US and Europe.

But the vote in the European Parliament is neither the definitive authorization for travel surveillance and control, nor the full grant of retroactive immunity for travel companies that have been violating EU data protection rules, that the DHS and its European allies had hoped for.

Many MEPs voted for the agreement only reluctantly, in the belief (mistaken, we believe), that it was “better than nothing” and represented an attempt to bring the illegal US surveillance of European travelers under some semblance of legal control.

Whatever MEPs intended, the vote in Strasbourg will not put an end to challenges to government access to airline reservations and other travel records, whether in European courts, European legislatures, or — most importantly — through public defiance, noncooperation, and other protests and direct action.

By its own explicit terms, and because it is not a treaty and is not enforceable in US courts, the “executive agreement” on access to PNR data provides no protection for travelers’ rights.

The intent of the US government in negotiating and lobbying for approval of the agreement was not to protect travelers or prevent terrorism, but to provide legal immunity for airlines and other travel companies — both US and European — that have been violating EU laws by transferring PNR data from the EU to countries like the US.  The DHS made this explicit in testimony to Congress in October 2011:

To protect U.S. industry partners from unreasonable lawsuits, as well as to reassure our allies, DHS has entered into these negotiations.

But because of the nature of the PNR data ecosystem and the pathways by which the DHS (and other government agencies and third parties outside the EU) can obtain access to PNR data, the agreement does not provide travel companies with the full immunity they had sought.

Most of the the routine practices of airlines and travel companies in handling PNR data collected in the EU remain in violation of EU data protection law and subject to enforcement action by EU data protection authorities and private lawsuits by travelers against airlines, travel agencies, tour operators, and CRS companies in European courts.

Why is that?

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