Muslim Woman Arrested and Charged for Observing Her Religion on Independence Day
In the category of “you can’t make this stuff up”, a Muslim woman in Chicago was arrested on her way to take the train after a day of shopping for food. On July 4, 2015, Itemad “Angel” Almatar was running to catch the “El” train in downtown Chicago. She was carrying food that she planned to eat to end her Ramadan fast. She was dressed in Muslim attire, including a hijab, or veil, that covered her face.
As she neared the top of the El platform, she was tackled by three Chicago police officers. They asked her why she was Muslim, why she was fasting, and why she covered her face and body. Adding insult to injury, Ms. Almatar was then arrested and charged with reckless conduct and resisting arrest. Much of the incident was captured on tape. The police claimed that the way Ms. Almatar was dressed and the way she carried her backpack (in front instead of on her back), they believed she posed a threat and also would cause a panic amongst the passengers of the train (even though no passengers were seen even turning their heads in the direction of Ms. Almatar).
At trial, the Chicago Transit Association (“CTA”) video showed that Ms. Almatar was tackled from behind on the floor of the platform, manhandled by six police officers in front of commuters, several of whom used their cell phones to videotape the search and arrest. She was subsequently strip searched, humiliated, and demeaned.
The CTA video contradicted the officers’ claims that they yelled “stop.” No one depicted in the video turned in response, even though Ms. Almatar was surrounded by other commuters. Ms. Almatar was acquitted of all charges.
The evident lack of religious sensitivity from the officers was troubling. When asked what cultural training he had with regard to Muslims, one officer responded that his only cultural training was received during terrorism training. Also troubling was that this prosecution went forward despite video evidence that contradicted the officers’ claims as well as arguing at trial that the police officers were justified in tackling Ms. Almatar based on what she was wearing.
Ms. Almatar hired two private attorneys at the beginning of the case who eventually withdrew. With no money to afford an attorney, the Law Office of the Cook County Public Defender was appointed to represent Ms. Almatar. Assistant Public Defenders Camille Durham and Aaron Goldstein tried the case. Every day Public Defenders represent the indigent without regard to race, religion, ethnicity or gender. Cook County Public Defender Amy Campanelli has always stressed that our office takes a strong stance against discrimination and that our office stands for the equal and fair treatment of all.
The case drew a lot of media and community attention. Community activist Imam Abdul Malik Mujahid attended the trial and not only was ecstatic over the verdict but also came away with a tremendous respect for the work that our Office does. Explained Mr. Mujahid, “thanks to the public defender, they did a marvelous job… On behalf of the Muslim community and all the citizens I would say that’s the tax money’s best use . . . [what the public defenders did] was simply amazing.”