Homeland Insecurity

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The Guardian/UK

Homeland Insecurity

As Noordin Mengal's experience shows, the US is now adding human rights defenders to its list of unwanted aliens

by
Peter Tatchell

In another bizarre twist to Washington's often illegal, irrational "war on terror", peaceful, lawful human rights campaigners are now apparently being refused entry to the US -- without any right of appeal.

Noordin Mengal, a British citizen and Baluch human rights defender, was detained and deported by US immigration when he arrived at Newark Liberty airport from Dubai last week.

Mengal is the grandson of the veteran Baluch national leaders Sardar Attaullah Mengal and Nawab Khair Bakhsh Marri. He is a representative to the UN human rights council on behalf of Interfaith International and is a member of the lawful, non-violent Baluchistan National party.

Baluchistan was invaded and annexed by Pakistan in 1948. It has been under military occupation ever since. Washington's ally in the so-called "war on terror"", the Pakistani president and dictator Pervez Musharraf, has been waging a savage war against the people of Baluchistan, indiscriminately bombing civilian areas using US-supplied (pdf) fighter aircraft and attack helicopters.

Unlike Musharraf, some of whose army and intelligence services are protecting the Taliban and Osama bin Laden, the Baluchistan National party is peaceful, democratic and secular. Its members ought to be supported, not harassed, by the US.

But the ignorant, simple-minded Bush regime doesn't like human rights defenders who challenge its foreign allies and stooges. In particular, it is fearful of campaigners who expose US complicity with dictators and with the perpetration of crimes against humanity. Presumably, this is why Mengal was stopped and sent back? There is no other explanation, since all his papers were in order and all his humanitarian campaigning is non-violent and constitutional.

Mengal has never been arrested in the past and has never been convicted or charged by any government. He has never been accused of any offence and has no charges pending against him. Does the US government care? Apparently not. It seems to ignore the US constitution when it suits it to do so.

After being held in custody in appalling conditions for over 26 hours by the department of homeland security, Mengal was refused entry to the US and deported. No reasons given. No right of appeal. This is Bush-style democracy in action.

Apart from humiliating and inconveniencing Mengal, does this matter to the rest of us? Yes. It is further evidence of the corrosion of the rule of law and human rights by a US administration that is making major blunders in its bid to protect the country from terrorist attack.

Mengal's mistreatment by the US authorities is worth telling in some detail because it highlights the lawless abuses and shameful ignorance that often characterises President Bush's foreign and domestic policies.

On his arrival at Newark at 6.30pm on June 23, Mengal was detained and interrogated by officers of the customs and border protection enforcement section of the department of homeland security. Mengal was questioned about the situation in Baluchistan and his human rights activities. Although he cooperated fully and gave a truthful account, he was subsequently told that he would not be granted entry to the US and was, in effect, deported.

Under the US visa waiver programme, however, law-abiding British nationals are exempted from formal visa procedures and can freely visit the US for a maximum stay of up to three months on each entry.

Mengal asked an officer if he could call an official at the British embassy. The official confirmed his right to do so, but told him it would only be possible just prior to his departure. In the end, this assurance was voided. Moreover, Mengal was denied access to a telephone to contact his family and no one from the US government informed Mengal's family of what was happening to him.

According to Mengal, at the wholly unreasonable hour of 2am the next morning he was re-interrogated. At one point he was asked if he would like to phone someone within the US, as he was not allowed to call internationally. But then he was told it was too late in the night and he would have to wait until later in the morning. But this opportunity to phone a US contact never materialised.

A transcript of his interrogation was supposed to be given to him but wasn't. It was eventually sent to him after he left the US, but it was doctored to falsely allege that he had declined offers to contact a lawyer and the British embassy.

A little later Mengal was informed that he would be given a place to rest, but was made to sit on a chair for nearly 10 hours, during which time he was repeatedly told that he would soon be taken to another facility.

At approximately 6am on June 24 he was belatedly given a thermoplastic blanket (a disposable emergency sheet made of yellow polythene with a cellulose matting insulation) to keep warm.

At around 11am, officers moved Mengal to another facility. The authorities shackled him like a common criminal, locking his handcuffs to a heavy chain looped around his waist, and led him through the airport lounge to an armoured detention vehicle.

Mengal was driven to the Elizabeth detention facility in New Jersey, where he was placed in a cell with a solid steel door. He estimates he was there for over five hours.

On questioning the detention officer regarding his status, Mengal was told that he was not a criminal, nor an offender. Mengal asked the officer if a British citizen had ever been detained at this facility. The officer replied: "Never."

In the evening of 24 June, Mengal was once again restrained with fetters and manacles and transported back to the airport. He asked officers of the department of the homeland security if he had the right to call a lawyer. He was told he was not now entitled to one and could only have done so on the day of his arrival. On the day of his arrival, however, he was not informed of any of his rights, nor was he allowed to contact anyone.

At 8pm, Mengal was interrogated again by officials from US immigration and customs enforcement. They disparaged and dismissed his human rights work. He was made to feel like an enemy of the US.

Shortly before he was put on a Qatar Airways flight at about 9pm, Mengal was told he was being sent back to Dubai and that if he returned to the US, even having attained a visa, there was still a possibility he would be denied entry.

With typical US government doublespeak, Mengal was informed that he was not being deported, but rather was regarded as "inadmissible". At no point was he ever told why he was refused admission to the US. Even now, he doesn't know why.

Throughout his detention, Mengal was denied the right to contact an official from the British embassy. Isn't this a violation of the Vienna convention? Aren't detained foreign nationals supposed to have the right to contact their diplomatic representatives?

It seems like the department of homeland security can't tell the difference between a terrorist and an anti-terrorist, democratic, secular, peaceful Baluch human rights defender. In which case, the "war on terror" is bound to fail. The US government's clumsy, ignorant victimisation of another innocent person - Mengal isn't the first and he won't be the last - helps explain why so many people hate America. This is a nation that professes a love of liberty yet often acts like a tin-pot tyranny.

Peter Tatchell is a human rights campaigner, and a member of the queer rights group OutRage! and the left wing of the Green party.

© Guardian News and Media Limited 2008

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