Student detained over Arabic flashcards, lawsuit says
WASHINGTON (AFP) – Federal agents handcuffed, detained and "abusively" interrogated a US student at Philadelphia International Airport because he was carrying Arabic flashcards, a lawsuit claimed Wednesday.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a lawsuit against FBI agents, police and others on behalf of Nicholas George, saying the 22-year-old was held for nearly five hours at the airport in August and missed his flight back to school in California as a result.
The complaint also linked his arrest at an airport screening checkpoint to a book critical of US foreign policy that he was carrying -- "Rogue Nation: American Unilateralism and the Failure of Good Intentions," by Clyde Prestowitz.
US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screeners detained George and he was "abusively interrogated" by a TSA supervisor, who asked him about his views on the September 11, 2001 attacks, according to the complaint filed in the US District Court in Philadelphia.
George was asked whether he knew "who did 9/11," what language Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden spoke and why the English-Arabic flashcards were "suspicious."
He was then handcuffed and left in a locked cell for two hours before two FBI agents interrogated him for half an hour, the ACLU said, adding that their client was never informed of his rights or told why he was being held.
George, a senior physics and Middle Eastern studies major at Pomona College, was questioned about his travels to Muslim and Arabic-speaking countries, including Jordan where he spent a semester studying abroad, and who he met there.
"As someone who travels by plane, I want TSA agents to do their job to keep flights safe," he said in a statement. "But I don't understand how locking me up and harassing me just because I was carrying the flashcards made anybody safer."
The lawsuit seeks monetary damages for alleged violations of George's constitutional rights to free speech and to be free from unreasonable seizure.
George has studied Arabic since his first year at university "in order to be able to read and understand what was being reported and debated in contemporary Middle Eastern newspapers, television programs and other publications or media," the lawsuit explained.
The flashcards he had with him, which have an English word on one side and its Arabic equivalent on the other, are widespread.
"Nick George was handcuffed, locked in a cell for hours and questioned about 9/11 simply because he has chosen to study Arabic, a language that is spoken by hundreds of millions of people around the world," said Ben Wizner, staff attorney with the ACLU National Security Project.
"This sort of harassment of innocent travelers is a waste of time and a violation of the Constitution."