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'No-fly' Muslim takes case to court of public opinion

John Brecher / msnbc.com

Mustafa Elogbi and his lawyer address media and supporters at Portland International Airport on Monday. six weeks after he was stranded abroad by opaque U.S. security procedures.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Mustafa Elogbi is by nature a private person. But when he finally arrived home after a frightening ordeal with U.S. security officials that cost him six weeks and thousands of dollars, he chose the spotlight.

Elogbi is seeking publicity and threatening legal action against the government for what he says was virtual exile by the U.S. government despite concerns about how the publicity might affect his family.

"I worry about my kids -- there are a lot of good people, but there are some who could try to harm them," the 60-year-old Libyan-American said Monday after clearing Customs at Portland International Airport. "But I think we really didn’t have any other choice."

On Jan. 4, after visiting family and friends in Libya, Elogbi headed home from Tunis, Tunisia, to the United States, where he is a citizen and resident of 33 years. But when his flight landed at London’s Heathrow Airport, he was detained and questioned by security officials who he says told him they were acting on behalf of Washington.

They told him he would not be able to board a flight to the United States, and instead locked him up in solitary confinement at a British detention center for two days, then placed him on a flight back to Tunis.

Elogbi was shaken and humiliated. His wife, Annie Petrossian, contacted a Portland lawyer immediately, but Elogbi was at first leery of confronting the government.

But his options were limited. Because he was apparently on the U.S. secret "no-fly" list, he could not board any flight to the United States or Canada, which also enforces the list.

The Terrorism Screening Center, operated by the FBI, as a matter of policy, will not confirm nor deny the inclusion of a given person on the no-fly list. About 500 U.S. citizens are on the list, said a representative at the TSC, who asked not to be named. The total number of names on the list -– which includes "known or suspected terrorists" stands at about 21,000.

John Brecher / msnbc.com

Mustafa thanks Muna Qadan, 8, for the home-made greeting card she gave him as he arrived at the airport. Watching are Mustafa's daughter, Alaa, and her friend Maryam Qadan.

The Council on American Islamic Relations says it regularly fields calls from Americans –- mostly Muslims -- who are prevented from boarding and believe they are on the no-fly list. Less than half of those who contact the organization pursue legal action, and fewer still seek publicity, according to CAIR staff attorney Gadeir Abbas. He says this is especially true if they are within the United States, and can take a car or train home.

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"Part of the reason people don’t share that they are on the no fly list … (is that) being on the list could have implications for their relationships or standing in the community," said Abbas. "It is a public declaration that the government for whatever reason is suspicious of you."

A few American citizens who have been prevented from boarding flights have made their way back to the United States by boat, train and car. And Abbas said some give up.

"There are definitely folks who were abroad, found themselves on the no-fly list and never returned,” said Abbas. "If the U.S. is impeding your travel back to the U.S …. it’s just a small jump to speculate about what could happen to you when you return."

But Elogbi said he never considered staying away.

"I lived here for 33 years. Basically I’m an American guy," he said. "This is my home. They cannot chase us out of this country. It’s not going to make me run away from the United States."

With the help of two attorneys, and his wife’s persistent calls to U.S. agencies and her senator, Elogbi ultimately was allowed to fly home. He was required to fly on a U.S. carrier, on an itinerary approved by the U.S. Embassy in Tunis, which was communicating about the case with Washington.

He did not submit to questioning by an FBI agent who contacted him in Tunis, he said, because he wanted a lawyer present. When he did fly, he did so with his Portland lawyer, Tom Nelson, who had escorted another client, Jamal Tarhuni, back from Tunis a week earlier.

Upon arrival, Elogbi was taken aside at U.S. Customs for questioning – and Nelson was not allowed to be present, the two said. Border authorities confiscated Elogbi’s cell phone and told him to retrieve it later this week at the Portland FBI field office.

The FBI and the State Department have repeatedly declined to comment on the cases, citing privacy concerns.

There are currently two major legal challenges to the Justice Department over its no-fly list.

This could become a third, according to Nelson, who has at least one more no-fly client overseas. He has also been seeking assistance from Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who is the chair of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee, and the press.

"I want to put a spotlight on these people (in the security apparatus," said Nelson. "They want to put a spotlight on me or on us  -- that’s fine. Bring it on. But let’s play by the rules here, let’s play by the Constitution that they are sworn to uphold."

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