Rahinah Ibrahim, a Stanford University doctoral candidate, said she was at San Francisco International Airport last year ready to fly to her homeland of Malaysia for a conference.
Then she was told her name was on the government's terrorist no-fly list. Then she was handcuffed and put in the back of a police car.
Then she was told it was all a mistake and her name was off the list.
But the next day she was told again her name was on the no-fly list.
When she finally got to Malaysia and tried to return to finish her doctorate, she was told the U.S. Embassy had pulled her visa. She hasn't been back here since. But she's fighting back from afar.
Last week she told that story in a federal lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security and several other agencies and individuals, challenging the constitutionality of the controversial, post-Sept. 11 secret list.
Nico Melendez, a spokesman for the federal Transportation Security Administration, which oversees the no-fly list, said Friday he cannot comment on pending litigation.
A handful of other plaintiffs have also fought the list, which some claim is capricious and ineffective.
In early January, a federal judge in Seattle threw out the bulk of a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the flight ban, dismissing it for procedural failures.
On Jan. 25, the American Civil Liberties Union settled a different suit filed on behalf of two Bay Area peace activists. The government paid $200,000 for the plaintiffs' legal fees, but gave up little of the information about the no-fly list that they sought.
Nonetheless, San Francisco attorney Thomas Burke, who worked on that case, said it did shed some light on the list. For example, on Sept. 11, 2001, only 16 people were barred from air travel, according to documents the government was forced to produce. By that December, the number was 594. One year later the list carried 1,000 names.
No one knows the current number, and the government won't tell. But Burke said by last year, 30,000 people had complained to the government that their names had wrongly been listed.
And for each person whose name is placed on the list, he said, all others with the same or similar names will be barred from flying or subjected to more invasive searches.
The TSA's Melendez explained police or intelligence agencies forward names to the agency ``of people we know pose a threat or are suspected of posing a threat to civil aviation.'' Those are then given to the airlines.
They are divided into two categories -- no-fly, which means you don't get on a plane, or ``selectee,'' which means you are subjected to more intense searches, such as a physical pat-down, wanding and a detailed inspection of carry-on luggage.
``We don't confirm the number of names on either list,'' he said. ``It's constantly changing. Names are added and removed regularly.''
Ibrahim, 40, had been in the United States on a student visa as she was preparing her dissertation on affordable housing. She, her 14-year-old daughter and a friend were at the United Airlines counter where she requested a wheelchair, complaining she was still in pain from complications from a hysterectomy.
She got no wheelchair. Instead, her lawsuit says, the San Francisco police were called, and she stood, in pain, for an hour and a half before she was finally arrested, her hands cuffed behind her back as others in the terminal looked on. She was taken to a police holding cell.
Ibraham has no criminal record and no ties with terrorists, her attorney said.
She was not told why she was being arrested.
Her hijab -- a head scarf worn by Muslim women -- was taken off and searched in view of other male officers, the suit alleges.
``The head scarf is something that's required by the Islamic religion,'' said her attorney, Marwa Elzankaly of San Jose. ``They wear head scarves in public and do not take them off where there are other men.''
Ibraham was put in a holding cell for two hours, not allowed to have her pain medication, the suit says.