Posted by on February 13, 2013 in Blog

Shoshana Hebshi, a 36-year-old Ohioan of Arab and Jewish descent who landed at the Detroit Metro Airport on a Frontier flight from Denver, was yanked off the plane on the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001. She was subsequently strip-searched and jailed for more than four hours based on complaints that she, along with the two other men sitting on her row, were “conducting suspicious activity” during the flight.

Hebshi and two other men of South Asian descent sitting in her row were detained after flight attendants received complaints about the two men using the lavatories. Flight attendants then alerted the pilot that the two men were "possibly of Arab descent".  Shortly after, all three were targeted by federal agents who came on the plane and ordered them at gunpoint to exit the plane after handcuffing them. Hebshi recalls she "was frightened and humiliated," adding that the federal agents who forced her off the plane “wouldn't even tell [her] what was going on".

According to the Associated Press, “Detroit FBI spokeswoman Sandra Berchtold said ultimately authorities determined there was no real threat.” However, Berchtold did insist that "due to the anniversary of Sept. 11, all precautions were taken, and any slight inconsistency was taken seriously." She added, "the public would rather us be on the side of caution than not.”

The freelance journalist and mother of two claims she was targeted and harassed based on her ethnicity. "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." She added, "we often think of racial profiling as a problem that impacts other people…I am proof that racial profiling hurts us all."

On January 22, 2013, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a lawsuit on behalf of Hebshi, “challenging Frontier Airlines, Detroit Metro Airport officials, and federal authorities for her unlawful arrest, detention, and strip-search.” Hebshi told the Free Press that she hopes the lawsuit can lead to changes and "heightened awareness" of abusive law enforcement.

Samples from ACLU’s complaint:

2. An American citizen born in California, Ms. Hebshi was arrested and detained because of her ethnicity and her seat assignment: she has an Arab last name and was seated next to two men of South Asian origin, who each allegedly used the lavatory for ten to twenty minutes during the flight.  Ms. Hebshi did not know these men, nor did she speak with them or leave her seat at any time before landing in Detroit.

3. Although Frontier Airlines never suggested that Ms. Hebshi had engaged in any suspicious behavior, Frontier Airlines staff provided her name to federal and state authorities when reporting the allegedly suspicious conduct of the men seated next to her on the plane....

5. During her several hours in detention, Ms. Hebshi was subjected to an invasive and humiliating strip search, which required her to strip naked, bend over, and cough.

6. Ms. Hebshi, by her attorneys, now challenges the discriminatory conduct of Frontier Airlines, which identified her as a "suspicious" passenger based on her ethnicity, race or national origin, resulting in her arrest and detention.

Click here to read the formal complaint in its entirety.

Hebshi’s case has drawn international attention, including reports from The Economist and the Guardian, raising questions about minority treatment in the US. Following the 9/11 attacks, complaints of racial profiling among Arab Americans as well as other minorities have continued to rise drastically despite efforts to halt such discrimination. It is the hope of the Arab American community that Hebshi’s fight against discrimination will prohibit government agencies and airlines from explicitly targeting minorities and undermining the civil and human rights of people such as Shoshana Hebshi.

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