By Scott Malone
BOSTON (Reuters) – Two men whom the New York Post labeled as “Bag Men” in a front-page photo shortly after April’s fatal Boston Marathon bomb attack have sued the newspaper for libel.
The Post reported three days after the bombing that federal investigators were seeking the pair, 16-year-old Salaheddin Barhoum and 24-year-old Yassine Zaimi. The story ran just hours before the FBI released photos of the actual suspects they were pursuing.
The lawsuit, filed on Wednesday, names the Post and five of its journalists, and seeks unspecified monetary damages. Post officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Barhoum and Zaimi, both avid runners, had gone to watch the finish of the April 15 marathon, which attracts thousands of spectators to downtown Boston. They left shortly after the winners crossed the finish line and about two hours before a pair of homemade pressure-cooker bombs exploded, killing three people and injuring more than 260.
A massive investigation followed the blasts, the largest attack on U.S. soil since hijackers flew planes into the World Trade Center and Pentagon on September 11, 2001. Police and FBI investigators called on witnesses from the packed scene to submit photos of the area before the bombs detonated, and early on said they believed the bombs had been carried to the site in bags.
Two days after the blast, Barhoum and Zaimi learned that a photo showing them near the site had been circulated on social media websites, according to the lawsuit. Each man went separately to his local police department to explain his presence at the finish of the race.
After questioning, police released each man in the early morning of April 18 after telling them they were not suspects, the lawsuit said.
Later that morning, each was stunned to see his image on the cover of the News Corp paper under the headline “Bag Men: Feds seek this duo pictured at Boston Marathon,” according to their lawsuit filed in Suffolk County Superior Court.
Zaimi, the older of the pair, first saw the paper when he arrived at work.
“He immediately started shaking, his mouth went dry, and he felt as though he was having a panic attack,” according to the lawsuit.
Barhoum was on vacation from school that week and learned of the newspaper article when he returned from a track meet to find a large crowd of media at his home.
“The plaintiffs were not suspects and were not being sought by law enforcement,” the lawsuit contends. “The Post had no basis whatsoever to suggest that they were, especially in light of a warning on Wednesday to news media, by federal authorities, to exercise caution in reporting about this very matter.”
The Post’s editor in April defended the cover, saying it identified two men police were seeking. “We did not identify them as suspects,” said the editor, Col Allan.
Hours after the Post published the photo and article, the FBI released pictures of two other men later identified as ethnic Chechen brothers Tamerlan Tsarnaev and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, whom it named as suspects in the bombing.
The two are suspected of having killed a police officer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and engaging in a gun battle with police in Watertown, Massachusetts, that night. Tamerlan, 26, died in the fight, while Dzhokhar, 19, was arrested on April 19 after a day-long manhunt that locked down much of the Boston area.
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is in a prison hospital west of Boston, awaiting trial on charges that carry the threat of the death penalty.
(Additional reporting by Jennifer Saba in New York; Editing by Paul Thomasch and Lisa Von Ahn)