(Washington, DC) – The US Justice Department should immediately investigate the New York City police for alleged religion-based discrimination in their surveillance of Muslim communities, and make its findings public, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter to US Attorney General Eric Holder. Holder recently said that the matter was “under review” at the Justice Department, but there has been no commitment to a formal investigation.
Since August 2011, The Associated Press has published several reports detailing the New York City police department’s surveillance and intelligence-gathering efforts in Muslim communities, both inside and outside the city, from 2006 to 2008. The intelligence gathering was carried out solely on the communities’ religious or ethnic profile and not on suspicion of criminal activity. Officials of New York City and New York State have refused to investigate the police over these allegations. Under federal law, the US Justice Department has authority to investigate complaints of violations of civil rights by individuals, as well as by entities that receive federal funds, such as the New York City police.
“New York City police have engaged in a pattern of surveillance of mosques and Muslim student groups without suspicion of criminal activity,” said Andrea Prasow, senior counterterrorism counsel at Human Rights Watch. “Since New York’s mayor and the state attorney general won’t act, the Justice Department needs to step in and properly investigate these allegations of discrimination.”
A 60-page New York City Police Department report obtained by The Associated Press details a 2007 surveillance operation of Muslims in Long Island and in Newark, New Jersey. Plainclothes officers from the Demographics Unit infiltrated and photographed dozens of areas identified as “locations of concern,” including mosques, Muslim student organizations, and businesses owned or frequented by Muslims.
Using this information, the police department built databases showing where Muslims live, pray, buy groceries, and use internet cafes. The report acknowledged that intelligence-gathering efforts went beyond the department’s jurisdiction, and cited no evidence of terrorism or other criminal activity prompting the operation.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg has publicly defended his police department’s actions, describing all components of the operation as “legal,” “appropriate,” and “constitutional.” He said that the police must pursue “leads and threats wherever they come from” – yet no alleged criminal activity is evident in any of the documents uncovered by the media, Human Rights Watch said.
Mayor Cory Booker of Newark has called for an independent investigation of the surveillance program, saying, “We must be vigilant in protecting our citizens from crime and terrorism, but to put large segments of a religious community under surveillance with no legitimate cause or provocation clearly crosses a line.” He said the New York City Police Department had told his police department it was entering Newark as part of an ongoing terrorism investigation, but not that it was “a blanket investigation of individuals based on nothing but their religion.”
The Associated Press also reported that New York City police monitored Muslim college students throughout the northeastern United States, including at Syracuse University, Yale University, and the University of Pennsylvania, during 2006 and 2007. A number of university presidents have publicly criticized the New York City police operations.
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which the United States ratified in 1992, protects the rights to freedom of religious belief, expression, and association, and the right to privacy. Governments are obligated to respect and ensure to everyone the rights recognized in the ICCPR, without distinction of any kind, such as religion or other status, and to investigate any alleged violations. Responsibility to enforce the ICCPR extends to state and local authorities, as well as federal officials.
“Police should be protecting the public from religion-based discrimination, not engaging in it,” Prasow said. “A full and transparent investigation of New York City’s surveillance program would be an important first step toward rebuilding the public’s trust.”