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Discrimination Lawsuits Filed Against US Airlines

Discrimination lawsuits were filed in federal courts across the United States Tuesday, charging airlines illegally forced five men off of flights because of their "perceived Middle-Eastern appearance."

The five lawsuits filed in New Jersey, California and Maryland charge major U.S. airlines with violating federal and state anti-discrimination laws.

Plaintiff Michael Dasrath says he and a fellow passenger were taken off of a Continental flight from New Jersey to Florida on New Years Eve after he heard a complaint that he and another passenger were acting suspiciously. Mr. Dasrath says the nature of the complaint and the fact that he did not have to go through any additional security before boarding a new flight, imply that the incident was racially motivated.

"These are here direct words, which I heard her say to the captain: 'those brown skin men are behaving suspiciously.' Moments later, I and the two other so-called "brown-skinned" men were ordered off the plane," he said. "No explanation was given. I was not searched. I was not asked to meet with any security personnel."

According to plaintiffs attorneys at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the removal of the five passengers because they were perceived to be Muslim or Arab, is part of a new pattern of prejudice. They say that pattern followed the September 11th terrorist attacks, carried out by Arab, Muslim hijackers. Another plaintiff, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee says the group has tracked at least 60 similar incidents.

Two of the plaintiffs are Arab. Four are U.S. citizens and one is a permanent legal resident. They were all forced off of American Airlines, Continental, Northwest and United Airlines flights late last year.

ACLU Director Anthony Romero says that the suits reopen the debate over racial profiling, which is illegal.

"In every respect these lawsuits answer some of those questions about whether or not racial profiling is appropriate," he said. "These lawsuits answer them by saying it is neither effective, because you're not focusing on the right individuals, in fact you're focusing on casting too broad a net, so it's not a good law enforcement tool. Nor is it defensible. That it really cuts at the core values that we care about as a country."

The ACLU says in some cases, plaintiffs are seeking damages, but the lawsuits are attempting to prevent the alleged discrimination in the future. Airlines say pilots have the right to remove passengers from flights to ensure safety and prevent unruly behavior. However, airlines deny discriminating against passengers based on race or ethnicity. Northwest says its employees "acted in accordance with FAA security regulations. American said the company is committed to diversity.

Spokesman for United and Continental Airlines told VOA that they could not comment specifically on the case.