New York: Thirty-three civil rights groups from across the United Sates complained to the New York attorney general on Friday about police documents that showed the New York Police Department recommending increased surveillance of Shi’ite mosques based on their religion.
The letter urged Attorney General Eric Schneiderman to investigate NYPD`s surveillance operations, revealed by a news agency’s investigation, which monitored entire neighbourhoods and built databases about everyday life in Muslim communities.
Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly and Mayor Michael Bloomberg have insisted that police only follow legitimate leads and do not conduct preventative surveillance in ethnic communities. A May 2006 report addressed to Kelly, however, recommended increased spying at mosques and an assessment of the region`s Palestinian community to look for potential terrorists.
Even before the agency published the document, Kelly was under fire from Muslim groups who were angry that a controversial movie about Muslims, "The Third Jihad”, was shown at NYPD training sessions. Kelly appears briefly in the movie.
About 150 protesters gathered near police headquarters on Friday to challenge the NYPD`s tactics. "Don`t be afraid, stand for justice!" they chanted before holding evening prayers in nearby Foley Square.
"Just the fact of knowing there is someone out there trying to listen to my conversations that can turn me into some kind of criminal, which I`m not, and exploiting my religion, it hurts," said Sondos Alsilwi, an 18-year-old history major at City College.
Schneiderman`s office did not immediately have a comment on the letter.
The Obama administration has made fighting home-grown terrorism a focus of its national security strategy but has repeatedly sidestepped questions about whether it endorses the NYPD`s tactics. Tom Perez, the US Justice Department`s top civil rights prosecutor, has refused to even answer questions about the NYPD.
The 2006 intelligence report, entitled "US-Iran Conflict: The Threat to New York City”, made a series of recommendations to Kelly, including: "Expand and focus intelligence collections at Shi`a mosques." It includes a list of mosques and community organisations stretching from southern New Jersey to Connecticut.
The NYPD`s operating rules prohibit it from basing investigations on religion. The NYPD also says it follows FBI guidelines, which would prohibit many of the steps recommended in the report.
But the NYPD faces little in the way of oversight when it comes to its intelligence programs. Both the City Council and Congress are kept in the dark about this secretive aspect of the department. Many first learned about the spying programs from news reports.
"The masses of people around this city are fed up with the police," City Councilman Charles Barron told protesters Friday. "Who the hell do they think they are?"
On Thursday, Kelly downplayed the significance of the 2006 document, calling it a "contingency plan" for military conflict between the US and Iran. Such language does not exist anywhere in the document.
Fears of such a conflict were rising again Friday amid concerns in the Middle East that Israel was preparing a military strike on Iran. Iran`s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned that an attack would only hurt the United States.
"A war itself will damage the US 10 times over" in the region, Khamenei said in a national broadcast Friday.
Iran is a majority Shi`a country, while most Muslims belong to the Sunni sect.
In August, when the agency first reported on the spying operations, Bloomberg said the NYPD doesn`t even consider religion as part of its police work.
"We don`t stop to think about the religion," he said. "We think about the threats and focus our efforts there."
Bloomberg spokesman Marc LaVorgna would not say whether the mayor still believes that.