Homeland Security made ‘mistake’ with former PhD student, judge says


SAN FRANCISCO — The Department of Homeland Security made a “mistake” when it put a former Stanford University PhD student on the government’s no-fly terrorist watch list and must give her an opportunity to apply for reentry to the United States, a federal judge has ruled.

U.S. District Judge William Alsup said the government’s refusal to allow Rahinah Ibrahim, 48, to board a plane in San Francisco in 2005 stemmed from an error that the government must correct. Ibrahim was eventually allowed to leave the country, but she has not been permitted to return from her home in Malaysia.

“The government concedes [she] is not a threat to our national security,” Alsup wrote.


Alsup, in a summary of a sealed ruling issued Tuesday, said the government should “cleanse/or correct its lists and records of mistaken information and certify under oath that such correction(s) have been made.”

“In light of the confusion caused by the government’s mistake, such cleansing-certification relief is ordered in this case,” Alsup wrote.

He also ordered the government to inform Ibrahim whether she remains on the no-fly list, tell her under what section of the law she is being prevented from returning to the U.S., and allow her to challenge that decision.

The day after she was arrested and held until her plane left, Ibrahim was permitted to depart with her teenage daughter for a conference in Hawaii. They continued their journey to Malaysia, where Ibrahim planned to stay for a few months before returning to Stanford to complete a doctorate in urban planning.

On the day she was to return to California, she was informed at a Malaysian airport that her student visa had been revoked and she could not reenter the United States, said Elizabeth Pipkin, her lawyer.

“This has been a long slog,” Pipkin said. “She has been trying to clear her name for nine years.”


Pipkin helped Ibrahim challenge the government’s actions in what was believed to have been the first trial of its kind in the country, held before Alsup without a jury.

But Ibrahim was not permitted to return to San Francisco to testify in person or to finish her PhD. The court heard videotaped testimony from her, and Stanford allowed her to complete her doctoral work from Malaysia, where she is now a university dean.

Ibrahim’s case has bounced back and forth between the district court and a federal appeals court, and the government is expected to appeal Alsup’s ruling.

Alsup said the public was entitled to information about what happened and ordered both sides to discuss and come to agreement by April 15 on a redacted version of the sealed ruling.

Pipkin said she did not know what led to her client’s name being placed on the watch list.

“The government has never provided a good reason for that,” she said.

Pipkin said she was under a protective order and could not reveal the procedures that allow the government to put someone on the list. She said Ibrahim has incurred more than $4 million in legal fees and costs and would seek reimbursement from the government.

“I hope the government will learn from this and going forward will have more transparency in the way they treat people,” Pipkin said.

A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Justice said the ruling was under review, and lawyers had no comment.