A group of angry Muslim residents of New Jersey this week filed a lawsuit against the New York Police Department for surveillance and data-gathering activities at mosques and other Muslim community centres.

News of an aggressive police surveillance programme targeting New York City's Muslim community first emerged earlier this year with a dramatic scoop by the Associated Press news agency. That scoop revealed that the New York Police Department monitored and collected data at 250 mosques, schools and businesses, “simply because of their religion and not because they exhibited suspicious behaviour”.

The community leaders in the Garden State had another rude shock in recent weeks when it came to light that the NYPD had actually crossed the Hudson river into New Jersey and conducted similar surveillance activities targeting Muslims there and, even worse, a review of this intrusion by the New Jersey administration found that the NYPD had done nothing unconstitutional.

The latest lawsuit however emphasised the intrusive and covert nature of the surveillance, noting that under the programme NYPD officers snapped pictures, took videos, and collected licence plate numbers of congregants as they arrived at mosques. They were also said to have mounted surveillance cameras on light poles and aimed them at mosques.

Alluding to the compulsions of a post-9/11 world NYPD Deputy Commissioner Paul Browne similarly noted, “NYPD activities in New Jersey were lawful, appropriate, and in keeping with efforts there, in New York, and around the world to prevent terrorists from returning here to kill more New Yorkers.”

Yet Farhana Kerha, President of Muslim Advocates, a legal association supporting the lawsuit, rebutted, “Since public officials have turned a blind eye towards bigotry, the victims have come forward to the courts as a last resort... We think Commissioner [Raymond] Kelly and his top leadership have gone too far, they've overreached.”

While the list of plaintiffs pressing the case includes students and imams mentioned in NYPD surveillance files, one plaintiff who may be important to the case's outcome is U.S. Army Reserves Specialist Syed Farhaj Hassan (35). Mr. Hassan, who was said to have served time in Iraq working in military intelligence, was “unfairly targeted and stigmatised by the NYPD's surveillance of his mosques,” according to the lawsuit.

His case may well supply the strongest evidence that the NYPD's surveillance went beyond mere information-collection, which is harder to prove as unconstitutional, and was a violation of the U.S. constitution's First Amendment law on religious freedom and its 14 Amendment guaranteeing equal protection under law regardless of race, religion or national origin.

Through Mr. Hassan's case plaintiffs are seeking to demonstrate that the NYPD programme adversely affected his religious observance for fear of being caught up in the surveillance. “This was a blanket victimisation of a suspect class,” Mr. Hassan said at a press conference following the announcement of the lawsuit, adding, “I think this is what the pilgrims crossed ... an ocean to avoid.”

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