By Niraj Warikoo
Detroit Free Pres Staff Writer
Published: Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2013
A 36-year-old Ohio woman who is half-Jewish and half-Arab filed a lawsuit today against the FBI and other federal agencies, saying she was yanked off an airplane at Metro Airport on the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, strip-searched, and jailed more than four hours in a dirty cell because of her ethnic background.
The American Civil Liberties Union filed the lawsuit Tuesday in Detroit on behalf of Shoshana Hebshi of Sylvania Ohio, who was on a Frontier Airlines flight that landed in Detroit on Sept. 11, 2011. She and two Indian-American men sitting in her row were targeted by federal agents who entered the plane, ordered them off the plane, handcuffed them, and pushed them down the stairs into vehicles, Hebshi said.
She was then placed in a cell, where she was ordered to strip naked, squat, and cough while an officer looked at her. Hebshi said she was terrified.
“I was frightened and humiliated,” said Hebshi, a freelance journalist and mother of 7-year-old twins. “As an American citizen and a mom, I’m really concerned about my children growing up in a country where your skin color and your name can put your freedom and liberty at risk at any time.”
At the time, Hebshi’s case drew international attention, leading to reports from the Guardian to The Economist that raised questions about the profiling of minorities in the U.S. Hebshi told the Free Press on Tuesday that she hopes the lawsuit can lead to changes and “heightened awareness” of abusive law enforcement.
Hebshi and the two men were detained after people on the plane complained about two of them going to the rest room. Flight attendants had alerted the pilot that the men going to the rest room were “possibly of Arab descent,” the lawsuit said.
After landing, “men with very large guns, militaristic looking, ran on the plane,” Hebshi recalled.
They told everyone to put their hands down on the seat in front of them. The agents then told Hebshi and the two men to get up. They were handcuffed and then detained, the only three on the plane to be arrested.
Hebshi said that no one told her why she was being targeted and what was happening.
“They wouldn’t even tell me what was going on,” she said, her eyes welling up as she recalled the incident. “No would answer me.”
Michael Steinberg, an attorney with the ACLU Michigan office in Detroit, said “she did nothing that was suspicious” to warrant such treatment.
There needs to be “accountability and changes so this type of thing doesn’t happen again,” Hebshi said. Hebshi said what happened to her is part of a broader problem of profiling of Arab Americans, Muslims, South Asians, Latinos, and others over the past decade by federal law enforcement.
“This country has a … history of profiling and oppressing people who look different,” she said. They assume “someone who is brown is a criminal.”
The suit was filed against Frontier Airlines, the FBI, the Transportation Security Administration, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and Customs and Border Protection.
“The FBI was clearly calling the shots” during Hebshi’s detainment, said Bill Goodman of Detroit, one of the attorneys representing Hebshi.
FBI Detroit spokesman Simon Shaykhet declined comment.
After the Sept. 11, 2011, incident, Andrew Arena, then special agent in charge of the Detroit FBI office, told the Free Press about Hebshi: “We treated her well.”
Khaalid Walls, spokesman for ICE, said Tuesday that “ICE does not comment on pending litigation.” He added that: “ICE is serious about responding to complaints or allegations of racial profiling. The agency does not tolerate profiling by its employees.”
Spokesmen for the other agencies declined comment.
Kate O’Malley, a spokeswoman for Frontier Airlines, said it “has a policy of not commenting on pending litigation.”
After the incident, Frontier spokesman Peter Kowalchuk said employees followed protocol by reporting suspicious activity after “concerns expressed by passengers on the aircraft and our flight attendants” about the two men seated next to Hebshi.
O’Malley said: “As an airline, our duty and that of our flight crews is to ensure the safety of our passengers and we have the responsibility to report any suspicious behavior to law enforcement officials.”
Steinberg said the ACLU was unable to reach the two Indian-American men who sat next to Hebshi.
Hebshi said she hopes that profiling and racism can end so that we “can come together as a country and be human.”