New York Police Department cars in Time Square.

© 2011 Reuters

(New York) – New York authorities should fully investigate New York City police for violating religious freedom in their surveillance of Muslim “communities of interest,” Human Rights Watch said today. The New York State Attorney General’s office announced on February 24, 2012, that it would not investigate the police surveillance of Muslim neighborhoods because of unexplained “legal and investigative obstacles.”

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.

“New York City police infiltrated mosques and Muslim student groups without any apparent reason to believe the law was being broken,” said Alison Parker, US program director at Human Rights Watch. “Investigating communities solely on the basis of religion is deeply damaging to human rights.”

The mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg, on his weekly radio show, defended the 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.  A New Jersey legislator criticized the operation as “profiling, fishing expeditions.”

Mayor Cory Booker of Newark 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 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.

In one report, an undercover police officer joined 18 Muslim students from the City College of New York on a whitewater rafting trip on April 21, 2008, in upstate New York. The officer included in his report the names of leaders of the Muslim Student Association who were participating. The Associated Press quoted the police report as stating: “In addition to the regularly scheduled events (Rafting), the group prayed at least four times a day, and much of the conversation was spent discussing Islam and was religious in nature.”

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 within its territory the rights recognized in the ICCPR, without distinction of any kind, such as religion or other status. For this they need to adopt measures that may be necessary to give effect to these rights, including investigating alleged violations. Enforcement of the ICCPR extends to state and local authorities, as well as federal officials.

In January, Bloomberg and other city officials apologized for showing an anti-Muslim film during police training but failed to take appropriate action against those responsible.

“Public officials and law enforcement have a duty to protect all citizens, regardless of religion,” Parker said. “New York officials should have long recognized that building the trust of minority communities, rather than undermining it, is the best way to ensure the city’s safety. A full and transparent investigation of the surveillance program would be a significant step in restoring this trust.”