Oregonians Stranded in Libya Return, But No-Fly List Continues Rapid Growth

By Ben Bronner, Volunteer

The ever-growing no-fly list continues to take its toll on American citizens. Its latest victims are Oregon residents Jamal Tarhuni and Mustafa Elogbi. While Tarhuni and Elogbi were traveling separately, their stories share many similarities. Both men traveled to Libya in the fall. Both attempted to return to the United States in January but were not allowed to do so. And both report being interrogated about their religious beliefs and Libyan contacts at the behest of the US government. It’s cases like these that illustrate the importance of the ACLU’s ongoing efforts to increase the transparency of the no-fly list and the policies surrounding it.

Tarhuni is a 55-year old businessman from Tigard, Oregon. On January 17, he attempted to board his return flight in Tunisia after helping deliver medical supplies to Libya with Medical Teams International. A naturalized citizen who has lived in the United States for 35 years, this was the third trip that Tarhuni had made in the past year to Libya. Tarhuni initially agreed to take a polygraph test administered by the FBI in Tunisia. When he was asked to sign without reading what appeared to be a waiver of his Miranda rights, however, Tarhuni stopped the interview. He was stuck in Tunisia for the next four weeks. Thanks to the intervention of attorney Tom Nelson and Senator Ron Wyden, Tarhuni was finally able to return home, arriving on February 14th.

Elogbi, a 60-year old Portland man, was visiting family in Libya. After taking a January 8th flight from Tunisia to Britain—the first leg of his trip back to the states—he was taken into custody, interrogated, and held in solitary confinement for two days before being sent back to Tunisia. According to Elogbi, British authorities stated that they were acting at the request of the US government. Like Tarhuni, Elogbi is a naturalized citizen who has lived in the United States for over 30 years and has previously traveled to Libya to deliver humanitarian aid. He returned to Oregon on the morning of February 20th—six weeks after his initial attempt—accompanied by Nelson, who represents Elogbi as well as Tarhuni.

Both Elogbi and Tarhuni are members of the Islamic Center of Portland, a mosque whose imam was one of the plaintiffs in a suit filed in June 2010 by the ACLU of Oregon as well as the national ACLU and affiliates in several other states. The lawsuit was brought on behalf of a number of US citizens and lawful permanent residents, challenging their inclusion on the no-fly list. In many cases, the plaintiffs were not allowed to return home after traveling abroad and had lost or were at risk of losing their jobs. Although the plaintiffs were granted one-time waivers to return home, it appears that they will remain on the no-fly list, preventing future travels. The case was dismissed in May 2011, with the judge ruling that she did not have authority to hear the case.

The ACLU has appealed the decision and is currently awaiting oral argument in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. In the meantime, those on the list are left with little recourse. Individuals can’t even find out whether they’re (still) on the no-fly list until they try to fly. This likely applies to both Tarhuni and Elogbi, neither of whom knows whether he’ll be allowed to travel in the future.

Unless legal action is successful, we’ll likely hear about more and more cases like those of Tarhuni and Elogbi. The no-fly list doubled in size in the first few months of 2010, after an attempted Christmas Day attack, and doubled again in 2011. The list now holds 21,000 names, including those of United States citizens.