ACLU Sues Federal Government For Wrongly Putting Muslim Airline Pilot and His Wife On 'Terrorist Watch List'

August 19, 2008
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HARRISBURG, PA - The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania and the law firm of Saul Ewing LLP filed a lawsuit today on behalf of a 1991 Gulf War combat veteran and his wife who were wrongly put on the federal government's "Terrorist Watch List," seemingly because of their Muslim faith. The government refuses to acknowledge the couple's listing or give them an opportunity to challenge it. Currently suspended, Erich Scherfen will permanently lose his job as a commercial airline pilot next month if he is not removed from the list.

Neither Scherfen nor his wife Rubina Tareen has a criminal history nor ties to terrorist activity. Nonetheless, they have both been repeatedly subjected to humiliating questioning, searches, and detention for hours when they attempt to fly or cross the border.

"I can't believe I've been put on this list," said Scherfen. "Being suspended is incredibly embarrassing, even more embarrassing than all the times I had been held up in line in front of impatient, angry travelers for extra screening."

A resident of Schuylkill County and an American-born U.S. citizen, Scherfen served in the first Gulf War and received an honorable discharge after 14 years of service in the United States Army and National Guard. He converted to Islam in 1996. Scherfen first learned he was on "a list" from a gate agent prior to a September 2006 flight. Since then he has repeatedly been delayed for extra screenings before boarding a flight.

In April of this year, his employer, a small regional airline that subcontracts with larger airlines like United Express and U.S. Airways Express, informed Scherfen that he was a positive match on a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) list and placed him on administrative leave. During an unsuccessful attempt to resolve the issue with TSA, the airline was told they were not allowed to let Scherfen fly a plane. Suspended without pay, he is scheduled for termination on September 1, 2008 if he is not taken off the list. Scherfen will lose his career as well as his job.

"Branding innocent people as terrorists is not going to make us safer as a country," said Amy Foerster of Saul Ewing, lead counsel for the couple and a cooperating attorney with the ACLU. "We have a problem when a law-abiding, combat veteran is about to lose his job because the government has placed him on a terrorist watch list, but refuses to tell him why."

Scherfen's wife, Rubina Tareen, has also been told by gate agents that she is on "a list." A naturalized United States citizen who emigrated from Pakistan as a teenager, Tareen has her own business selling books about Islam through her Web site and at conferences. A frequent traveler, she has been questioned, searched, and detained for hours on multiple occasions.

"I want to clear my name, and also to save my family and me from all of the public embarrassment and humiliation that we are put through in airports," said Tareen. "Clearly something is wrong with this process."

Scherfen and Tareen have filed an inquiry with the Department of Homeland Traveler Redress Inquiry Program but have received no response.

"The government should not be blacklisting innocent American citizens without giving them a chance to clear their names," said Witold Walczak, Legal Director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. "Our government's overreaching approach to security is unfair, out of control, a waste of resources, and treats the rights of innocent Americans as an afterthought."

The Terrorist Watch List is compiled by the FBI's Terrorist Screening Center (TSC) and the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). The list is reportedly riddled with misinformation and is cloaked with a veil of secrecy. It is incredibly difficult, if not impossible, for individuals to determine whether they are even on the list, much less challenge their inclusion. Recently it took an act of Congress to remove Nobel Peace Prize laureate Nelson Mandela from the list.

In March of 2008, the Department of Justice's Office of the Inspector General (OIG) issued a report entitled "Audit of the Department of Justice's Terrorist Watchlist Nomination Processes" which criticized both the way individuals were added to the list and the fact that inaccurate records were not removed in a timely fashion. (A copy of the report can be found here.)

Scherfen and Tareen are represented by Walczak and Valerie Burch of the ACLU of Pennsylvania and Foerster and Emily Damron from the law firm Saul Ewing. The case, Scherfen et al. v. United States Department of Homeland Security, et al., was filed today in U.S. District Court in Harrisburg. A copy of the complaint can be found at: www.aclupa.org/scherfen

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