A Massachusetts teenager and his 24-year-old friend filed a defamation lawsuit against the New York Post Wednesday in Boston, accusing the tabloid of falsely portraying them as suspects in the deadly Marathon bombings by plastering their photograph on the front page under the headline, “Bag Men.”
The lawsuit filed in Suffolk Superior Court said the photographs and articles published three days after the bombings made it appear that FBI agents were pursuing Salaheddin Barhoum and Yassine Zaimi, avid runners watching the Marathon. That evening, authorities released photographs of the suspected bombers, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.
In the complaint, lawyers for Barhoum, a 16-year-old Revere High School student, and Zaimi, a part-time college student from Malden who also works full time, accused the New York Post of libel, negligent infliction of emotional distress, and invasion of privacy. They are seeking damages, including unspecified monetary compensation.
“The front page would lead a reasonable reader to believe that plaintiffs had bombs in their bags, that they were involved in causing the Boston Marathon bombing,” according to the court complaint. The lawsuit asserts the newspaper subjected the friends to “scorn, hatred, ridicule, or contempt in the minds of a considerable and respectable segment of the community.”
The New York Post declined to comment Wednesday, but editor Col Allan defended the coverage in April, telling the Associated Press they accurately reported that the image was e-mailed to law enforcement officials seeking information about the men. “We did not identify them as suspects,” Allan said.
Barhoum and Zaimi are legal residents who came to the United States from Morocco about four years ago after being granted visas, according to court records and their lawyers.
Zaimi came to the United States alone and met the Barhoum family when they were tenants in the same house, lawyers said. He got a job at a sandwich shop five days after he arrived in this country and now works at a financial services firm while studying business part time.
He also loves to run, lawyers said, which is why he and Barhoum, who runs track in Revere, went to the Marathon finish line early that day naively hoping to run the race. Zaimi had run a 5-kilometer race the previous year that started there and he mistakenly thought the Marathon started at the same spot. But Marathon officials told them the starting line was 26.2 miles away.
Feeling sheepish, they stayed and chatted with Kenyans and Ethiopians who had gathered to cheer elite runners. Two hours before the bombs went off, the pair left.
In the frenzied hunt for the bombers, photographs of the finish line crowd surfaced on online sites such as Reddit, according to the complaint.
On April 17, friends alerted Zaimi and Barhoum that their photos were online, their lawyers said. That night, the friends decided to go to police.
Authorities questioned both men, then told them they were not suspects, their lawyers said. Zaimi and Barhoum went home.
Earlier that day, the FBI had urged news organizations to exercise restraint because of several erroneous reports.
The next day, Zaimi and Barhoum appeared on the New York Post’s front page. A smaller headline said federal officials were looking for them.
A short article on the front page said there is “no direct evidence linking them to the crime, but authorities want to identify them.” Inside the newspaper, more photographs showed their faces next to a longer article that did not identify Zaimi and Barhoum, but friends, co-workers and classmates recognized them.
Lawyers said the coverage clearly implied that Zaimi and Barhoum were suspects.
“They’re saying these are the guys with the bombs in the bag,” said William Barrett, one of Zaimi’s lawyers.
At first, Barhoum and Zaimi were unaware of the article.
When Zaimi arrived at work that day, a company vice president called him into his office. Zaimi did not understand why until the office manager showed him a copy of the Post.
“He immediately started shaking, his mouth went dry, and he felt as though he was having a panic attack,” the complaint said.
Zaimi spent the day in a back room at work, where lawyers said his supervisors and co-workers have been very supportive.
That night, the complaint said, as he waited for the train home, someone pointed him out as the person in the New York Post. Zaimi fled.
Barhoum, who was on spring break, went to a track meet that morning. When he arrived home, a crowd of reporters was inside his house, questioning his parents. One reporter showed him an image of the New York Post.
Barhoum, according to the complaint, became “terrified, began to shake and sweat, and felt dizzy and nauseous.”
Zaimi has sought counseling for depression and refuses to go running. Though he has friends, he has no family in the United States.
“All of his enjoyment came from the running world, and that’s no longer part of his life,” said Barrett. “He feels like he’s being watched all the time.”
Max Stern, one of Barhoum’s lawyers, accused the newspaper of racial profiling and said he would ask the court to compel the Post to divulge the source of its information.
“What kind of stereotyping and profiling, what type of reasoning, led the Post to think this was OK to do?” he said. “And would they have ever done this if this was just some white kid from the suburbs who was standing there with the backpack?”Maria Sacchetti can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @mariasacchetti.