An American woman who said she was strip-searched and held for hours at an airport purely because of her ethnicity is suing the FBI and other agencies.
The American Civil Liberties co-filed the lawsuit Tuesday on behalf of Shoshana Hebshi, who was removed from a Frontier Airlines plane after it landed in Detroit on Sept. 11, 2011, according to the Associated Press.
The plane's crew had reported suspicious behavior by two men who'd spent several minutes in the bathroom and were sitting near her.
Hebshi was forcibly removed from an airplane in handcuffs and taken to a small cell where she was held for four hours despite having done nothing suspicious, the ACLU's statement said. While in custody, the daughter of a Saudi Arabian father and Jewish mother was allegedly ordered to strip naked, squat and cough as an officer watched, according to the statement.
“I was frightened and humiliated, and my rights were clearly violated solely because of my ethnicity,” Hebshi, a freelance journalist who lives in Sylvania, Ohio, said in a written statement. “As an American citizen and a mom, I’m really concerned about my children growing up in a country where your skin color and name can put your freedom and liberty at risk at any time. This kind of discrimination should not be tolerated.”
When she asked an agent why she was being stopped, a male agent allegedly told her that someone reported that she and the men in her row were "conducting suspicious activity."
Hebshi didn't know the two men who were also detained, according to the lawsuit.
The Associated Press previously reported that FBI spokeswoman Sandra Berchtold said the three passengers were questioned but not arrested before the FBI determined there was no reason to hold them. She also said FBI agents who questioned the passengers did not conduct strip searches.
Along with the FBI, Hebshi and the ACLU are suing Frontier Airlines, the Transportation Security Administration Wayne County Airport Authority, Detroit Metro Airport Police, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and Customs and Border Patrol.
In an email to the AP shortly after the incident, Wayne County Airport Authority spokesman Scott Wintner said airport police "responded appropriately by following protocol and treating everyone involved with respect and dignity."
Frontier and the Transportation Security Administration won't comment on the lawsuit, according to the AP.
ACLU of Michigan staff attorney Sarah Mehta said Hebshi's experience should not be viewed as an isolated incident.
“The illegal arrest and strip search of Ms. Hebshi is not simply a mistake made by an airline employee or government agency, but a predictable consequence of institutionalizing racial stereotypes and mass suspicion as law enforcement tactics,” Mehta said in the release. “Racial profiling is unconstitutional and counterproductive. No one is safer because an innocent mother of two was dragged off a flight, strip searched and held for several hours.”
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