x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Everyone has right to object to no-fly listing

America's security agencies have a secret list of terror suspects, and you could be on it simply because of your name

News that a United States judge has ruled that America’s contentious “no-fly list” is unconstitutional should be welcomed around the world. In Portland, ­Oregon, this week, District Court judge Anna Brown ruled in favour of 13 plaintiffs, mostly Muslim Americans, who argued that the secret list – which includes the names of up to 20,000 people who are banned from flying to or within the US – breaches the constitution because there are no means for travellers to know why their name is on the list, nor a mechanism for them to be removed from it. ­Indeed, most people don’t even know that they are on the list until they attempt to check-in at an airport and a computer flags their name.

While acknowledging the US government’s right to restrict access to classified information, the judge said that the Department of Homeland Security must find a way to disclose to those people on the list the unclassified information that was used to put them there. While the ruling applies to US citizens, the case will have ramifications for everyone, including Emiratis and other Arab Muslims, who have had – or may have – their travel plans upset by their inclusion on the no-fly list.

In a celebrated 2004 incident, a Washington DC-bound flight carrying musician Yusuf Islam, formerly known as Cat Stevens, was diverted to Bangor Airport in Maine. Islam was removed from the plane by FBI agents and sent back to his home in Britain. He was given no reason why he could not enter the US, although he was allowed into the country two years later. In her judgment, Judge Brown cited the case of a Malay­sian university professor, Rahinah Ibrahim, who took eight years to clear her name through the US court system after she was mistakenly identified as a terror suspect in 2005.

There have been many cases of people being interrogated and refused boarding simply because they have a similar name to somebody on the list. This is believed to be the reason in the Yusuf Islam case. The implications for this region, where many people share similar names, are obvious.

For that reason, the US government must extend to all travellers the right to challenge their inclusion on the list and the means to have their name removed. As Judge Brown noted, we all have the right to international travel. And nobody ought to be placed in a Kafkaesque scenario purely because of their name.