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After arrest, teenage Muslim protester and volunteer medic made to remove hijab for booking photo

Civil rights advocates are accusing Miami correctional officers of violating the teen’s religious rights.

The Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center in Miami, Jan. 13, 2014.  (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

(RNS) — Civil rights advocates are accusing Miami correctional officers of violating the religious rights of a Muslim teen protester whose hijab was removed for her booking photo.

Alaa Massri, an 18-year-old University of Central Florida student, was volunteering as a medic June 10 at an anti-racism protest in downtown Miami. Officers arrested her when she had gone to assist a protester she said had been struck by a police car, according to Massri and her supporters.

She was one of seven people arrested after protesters spray-painted statues of Christopher Columbus and Juan Ponce de León statues in Bayfront Park, per the Miami Police Department.

Massri was taken to Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center in West Miami-Dade, where her hijab was removed for the booking photo.

Her hijab, supporters allege, was not returned to her for the seven hours she was detained. Massri’s mugshot has also been displayed by national news broadcasts and media sites.

“We believe that Miami Police’s forceful removal of Ms. Alaa Masri’s hijab for a public booking photo is a severe violation of her constitutionally protected religious freedoms,” Omar Saleh, an attorney with the Council on American-Islamic Relations-Florida, said in a statement. “Keeping her from wearing the hijab for over 7 hours while in custody arrest shows deliberate disregard for Ms. Masri’s constitutional rights.”

The arrest report says Massri was arrested on charges of battery against a police officer, resisting officer with violence and disorderly conduct. She allegedly refused to move out of the intersection and punched an officer’s arm.

Alaa Massri, front left, was arrested at a racial justice rally on June 10, 2020, in Miami. Photo provided to Hassan Shibly by Alaa Massri

More than 115,000 people have signed a viral petition started by Massri and her supporters, which asks that charges against Massri be dropped, her mugshot be removed from databases and officers involved in her arrest and detention be investigated.

The creators accuse law enforcement of infringing upon her constitutional rights to peacefully protest and have her Miranda rights read to her when taken into custody. They also say officers violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, a federal law that protects people’s right to exercise their faith while confined in institutions such as jails and prisons.

“They not only assaulted her and charged her with false crimes to detain her,” the petition alleged. “They consciously took away her rights to be a woman practicing Islam and spread an image she never thought would be out in the world.”

Dominique Moody, an administrative officer in the Miami-Dade Corrections and Rehabilitation Department, said the department will review the incident to ensure compliance with its policies accommodating inmates who wear religious head coverings.

“Arrestees, who claim or appear to be of a particular faith, are allowed to keep their head-covering once it has been searched for contraband and the booking photograph has been taken,” Moody said in a statement. “We are committed to ensuring that individual’s faith-based beliefs and practices are respected and will review this incident to ensure compliance with our policies and this commitment.”

Massri told Religion News Service she was considering legal action but declined to be interviewed per her lawyer’s advice.

Another petition by CAIR-Florida has raised close to $18,000 for Massri’s legal fees, a civil suit against the police department and jail, and a campaign to change state police policies to maintain hijab for arrested Muslims. 

Reports of similar cases have emerged across the country. 

In 2018, New York City reached a $180,000 settlement with three Muslim women whose hijabs were removed by police during booking. In Yonkers, New York, a woman sued police after her hijab was removed for photos, a night in jail and a court appearance. A Minnesota woman received a $120,000 settlement after being forced to remove her hijab while taking a booking photo. Maine police have released photos of Muslim women without hijab after promising the images would be stored privately.

This story has been updated to include comments made by the Miami-Dade Corrections and Rehabilitation Department after publication.