Two Massachusetts men whose photos were splashed across the New York Post in an article claiming they were possible suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing have sued the newspaper for libel.
Salaheddin Barhoum, 16, and Yassine Zaimi, 24, who were watching the elite runners at the marathon’s finish line and carrying running gear in their backpacks, filed their suit on Wednesday in Suffolk County, Mass., Superior Court.
The April 15 bombing, which occurred near the race’s finish line, killed three people and injured more than 260 spectators. Two brothers, Tamerlan Tsarnaev and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, were identified as the bombers; Tamerlan Tsarnaev was killed in a standoff with law enforcement authorities, and his brother has been charged with the bombing.
On April 18, the New York Post published an article on its front page that was reposted on the Internet, claiming that law enforcement authorities were looking at two men as possible suspects. The article featured a photo of Barhoum and Zaimi with the headline "Bag Men." A sub-headline read: "Feds seek this duo pictured at Boston Marathon."
"The plaintiffs were not suspects and were not being sought by law enforcement," the suit says. "The Post had no basis whatsoever to suggest that they were, especially in light of a warning…to news media, by federal authorities, to exercise caution in reporting about this very matter. In fact, law enforcement authorities had then focused their investigation on two suspects who were not the plaintiffs."
Representatives of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., which owns the Post, referred requests for comment to a statement made at the time the article published. That statement, by New York Post Editor-in-Chief Col Allan, read: "We stand by our story. The image was emailed to law enforcement agencies yesterday afternoon seeking information about these men, as our story reported. We did not identify them as suspects."
El Houssein Barhoum filed the suit on behalf of his son, who lives in Revere, Mass. Zaimi lives in Malden, Mass. According to the suit, both men left the marathon at 12:45 p.m., more than two hours before the bombs detonated.
Immediately following the blasts, social media sites like Reddit began posting photographs of individuals caught on camera at the marathon, including that of Barhoum and Zaimi, the suit says. On April 17, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, concerned about inaccurate news reports, issued a warning to "exercise caution and attempt to verify information through appropriate official channels before reporting."
Both men, aware their photos had been made public, voluntarily went to their local police stations to answer any questions law enforcement authorities might have, the suit says. Both were told they were not suspects.
Barhoum found out about the Post article when he returned home to a throng of reporters at his house, and Zaimi’s office manager showed him to the newspaper’s story, the suit says.
In addition to the large headlines on the front page, the article contained a headline on the inside pages that read: "Feds Have 2 Men in Sights." Beneath that headline were two more pictures of the men, one with his head circled in red and the caption: "Cops are seeking these two men (above) who were spotted near the site of the Boston blasts."
The first sentence in the article read: "Investigators probing the deadly Boston marathon bombings are circulating photos of two men spotted chatting near the packed finish line, The Post has learned."
Similar headlines were displayed on the Internet version of the article.
Later that day, the Post updated the story online to say that the two men had been cleared.
"That in itself is libelous," said William Barrett of Boston’s Esdaile, Barrett, Jacobs & Mone, who represents Zaimi. "These two men weren’t probed, first of all. They volunteered the night before to go down to the various police stations near their homes, and in fact did that. They were never cleared because they were never suspects. You can’t be cleared from something you didn’t do or wasn’t a suspect of."
After the article was published, both men began to fear for their lives, the suit says. Barrett said both men are seeking monetary damages, both for libel and negligent infliction of emotional distress.
In addition to the Post, the suit names five individual reporters and an unidentified headline writer at the newspaper.
Barhoum is being represented by Max Stern, a partner at Boston’s Stern, Shapiro, Weissberg & Garin.
Contact Amanda Bronstad at email@example.com.