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Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Canadian Muslim barred from Air Canada flight files human rights complaint

A Canadian Muslim who says racial profiling was behind Air Canada's decision to deny him a ticket to board a flight three years ago filed a formal complaint Tuesday with the Canadian Human Rights Commission.

While attempting to purchase a ticket in Vancouver to fly to Victoria in May 2004, Shahid Mahmood said he was flagged as a security threat, despite his valid government ID - and the fact Air Canada did not yet have a Canadian "no-fly" list.

"I was stunned at their refusal to allow me to board this flight," Mahmood told a news conference in Toronto.

The sales agent at the time said his name was "flagged" by the system and that he also wouldn't be able to fly the next day. He was also warned that future flights aboard Air Canada would require him to show his passport, he said.

Mahmood's Chilean-born wife, however, was allowed to purchase a seat without incident.

Despite repeated attempts to find out why he was flagged, the Toronto-born editorial cartoonist said the airline has never given him a proper explanation.

"I am just as in the dark, with no tangible answers from Air Canada, now as I was three years ago," he said.

Mahmood, who grew up in Pakistan, believes he was blocked because of his race and faith.

Nicole Chrolavicius, Mahmood's lawyer, billed the case as the first of its kind in Canada, and said it reflects the plight of other Muslim Canadians who have been unjustly prevented from travelling by air.

Since Canada's no-fly program, known as Passenger Protect, didn't exist when the incident occurred, it's likely Air Canada was unofficially using U.S. data on potential security threats, Chrolavicius suggested.

Air Canada spokesman Peter Fitzpatrick declined to comment on the case because it is now being reviewed by the commission.

However, in a letter dated May 17, 2007, and addressed to New Democrat MP Peggy Nash, who has been advocating Mahmood's case, the airline said it does not practice racial profiling.

Instead, the letter states that Mahmood's file was flagged "because, at that time, his name was a close match to a name on a security list."

The letter goes on to explain that if Mahmood had arrived earlier for the flight, he might have had time to complete the screening process.

According to the letter, Mahmood tried to buy a ticket 41 minutes before the flight's scheduled departure time.

Since the incident, Mahmood has flown on Air Canada without incident and has travelled on non-American carriers to Europe, the Middle East and South America.

However, he is afraid to enter the U.S. because he fears he is on a no-fly list there.

Sameer Zuberi, communications co-ordinator with the Canadian Council on American-Islamic Relations, said his organization has fielded about 12 complaints from Canadians barred from flying, but most of those involved U.S.-bound flights.

Cases of mistaken identity are likely to increase as officials in different countries continue to swap no-fly information, Zuberi added. [Link]

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