An eight-year legal odyssey by a Malaysian university professor to clear her name from the U.S. government’s no-fly list went to trial Monday in federal court in San Francisco.
Rahinah Ibrahim claims she was mistakenly placed on the list because of her national origin and Muslim faith. She has fought in court since her arrest at San Francisco International Airport in January 2005 to clear her name.
Several similar lawsuits are pending across the nation, but Ibrahim’s legal challenge appears to be the first to go to trial.
Unlike a typical U.S. trial, where details important and mundane are disclosed in the name of justice, Ibrahim’s legal challenge has run head-on into the U.S. government’s state secret privilege that allows it to decline to disclose vital evidence if prosecutors can show a threat to national security.
Ibrahim’s lawyer is barred by court orders and national security provisions from delving too deeply into the inner-workings of the government administration of its suspected lists of terrorists.
Federal prosecutor Lily Farel told the judge the government could not respond to any of Ibrahim’s claims because of national security interests.
At one point Monday, U.S. District Judge William Alsup cleared the courtroom of spectators so three slides containing classified information could be discussed behind closed doors. Before and after the closed session, federal prosecutors lobbed a steady stream of objections when Ibrahim’s lawyer came close to discussing her client’s current no-fly list status and details of how Ibrahim came to be included on such a list.
Ibrahim is even barred from entering the United States to testify at the trial. Through testimony videotaped in London and shown Monday to the judge — who will decide the case without a jury — Ibrahim denied she was affiliated with any terrorist organizations.
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.
Ibrahim said her trouble with the government began Dec. 23, 2004, when two FBI agents showed up at her home near Stanford University, where she was pursuing a doctoral degree in architecture. She said the agents told her Malaysia was blacklisted by the U.S. government and they asked her if she had heard of the Malaysia-based terror organization Jemaah Islamiyah.
Ibrahim said she replied that she knew of the group only through news accounts. She said she was also asked about her involvement with the Muslim community in the San Francisco Bay Area and told the agents where she and her family worshipped.
The next month, she was detained at San Francisco airport as she was preparing to fly to Malaysia with a stopover in Hawaii. She caught a plane to Malaysia the next day and has been barred from entering the United States since.
Her lawyers have been arguing in court that Ibrahim was mistakenly placed on the no-fly list and bureaucrats and lawyers have steadfastly refused to disclose the reasons for her inclusion or consider arguments for her removal.
“Once you’re in the system it’s almost impossible to get out,” Ibrahim’s lawyer Elizabeth Pipkin told the judge Monday during opening statements at the trial. Pipkin said Ibrahim landed on the no-fly list through inadequate training of list administrators and their bias regarding religious and national origin.
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.