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Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Ohio U.S. Judge: Are Feds Hiding Muslim Activist's Records?

CLEVELAND (TDB) -- A federal judge in Cleveland has ordered Homeland Security officials to turn over records about the interdiction of Ohio Muslim activist Julia Shearson as she was returning from a Canadian vacation last year. Shearson is the regional director of the Committee on American-Islamic Relations chapter in Cleveland. She was handcuffed at a border patrol checkpoint near Buffalo while her vehicle was searched. She was never charged with a crime, holds a U.S. passport, and her 4-year-old daughter was with her during the stop.

Her only offense seemed to be that she was a prominent American Muslim.

Shearson, a U.S.-born convert to Islam, filed a federal Freedom of Information Act lawsuit that demands access to records about her detention of nearly three hours. (U.S. District Court Northern Ohio; Case No. 1:06cv1478) She contends a computer screen at the border crossing booth flashed an electronic message reading "ARMED AND DANGEROUS." She said the message appeared when she turned over her passport.

The CAIR Web site is HERE , and the group is recognized as a mainstream civil rights organization that advocates for Islamic Americans. It has become increasingly high-profile since the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Federal officials have released records about the stop, but they are heavily redacted. Shearson contends they were censored to hide potential civil rights abuses aimed at Muslim citizens.

Federal prosecutors have asked U.S. District Judge Patricia A. Gaughan in Cleveland to dismiss the case. They acknowledge Shearson was stopped after her name popped up on a of terror suspects. They have withheld about 10 pages of records.

"During primary inspection, a name inquiry of Ms. Shearson resulted in a TECS hit for being a suspected terrorist," the government said in a court filing. "Treasury Enforcement Communications System, or 'TECS,' is a computerized information system within the Customs and Border Protection Data Center designed to identify inviduals and business suspected of, or involved in, violation of law."

But there was no violation of law at the border stop -- Shearson was freed to go after nearly 3 hours in custody. The government contends it doesn't have to release law enforcement material, citing a FOIA exemption. Shearson also says her privacy rights were violated because the government passed records about her to other agencies. The government contends it is has broad authority.

Judge Gaughan this week said she cannot tell from the court filings so far if the government has improperly withheld documents. Shearson said the government's descriptions of the materials it has refused to turn over are too vague and lack sufficient detail.

"This court agrees," Judge Guaghan said in a ruling issued Monday. She said the government will have to give her the records "no later than February 15, at noon" and she will pore over them privately in her chambers.

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