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Wednesday, October 26, 2016

By Hannan Adely, The Record

HACKENSACK, N.J. — Civil rights advocates said they were troubled by the dismissal of a federal lawsuit that challenged broad surveillance of Muslims by the New York Police Department and feared it would give law enforcement a “green light” to spy on people based on their religion.

Muslim Advocates, a civil rights organization, filed the lawsuit in June 2012 on behalf of 11 Muslim individuals, businesses and organizations in New Jersey, alleging that the surveillance program violated their constitutional rights by targeting them on the basis of religion. U.S. District Judge William Martini dismissed the lawsuit Thursday, saying the plaintiffs did not show discrimination or injury.

Glenn Katon, legal director of Muslim Advocates, said the organization planned to appeal the decision.

“We really think the case was wrongly decided,” he said. “If its reasoning were upheld, it would be a dangerous precedent” against equality under the law and religious freedom.

Plaintiff Gary Abdul Karim Abdullah, owner of All Body Shop Inside and Outside in Newark, said he lost customers and income after his business was identified as one under surveillance.

“It had an adverse effect,” he said. “A lot of people called and told me they were afraid to come near the place. Along with the economic situation, it’s been very difficult.”

He said he was disappointed that the judge dismissed the case. “I think they should have heard from the people (in court) what they think about it,” he said.

Martini said the plaintiffs did not prove they were targeted because of their religion and that the “more likely explanation for the surveillance was a desire to locate budding terrorist conspiracies.”

“The motive of the program was not solely to discriminate against Muslims, but rather to find Muslim terrorists hiding among ordinary, law-abiding Muslims,” he wrote.

Even if the plaintiffs had proved injury, Martini said, it would have been caused by “unauthorized disclosure of documents” by The Associated Press, which broke the news about the surveillance program in a series of stories starting in August 2011. The AP series later was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.

Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the NYPD launched a surveillance program that targeted Muslims at businesses, universities and mosques, including ones in Paterson and Newark, as well as student groups at 16 Northeast colleges, including Rutgers University.

The NYPD allegedly listened in on sermons and conversations at mosques and reported back what they heard. Officers also recorded license plate numbers, mounted cameras on light poles, mapped and photographed mosques, and listed ethnic makeup of businesses in police reports, and they monitored student websites and emails.

News of surveillance caused outrage among Muslims and public officials in New Jersey, who claimed the NYPD did not inform them of their operations in the state. Muslims believed they were discriminated against and said fear of surveillance had put a chill on Muslim life, as people feared speaking out about politics, joining Muslim groups and even praying at mosques.