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Resist: What to do about alleged torture at SF airport

by Christina A. DiEdoardo

Activists at San Francisco International Airport protested the detention and removal from the U.S. of Philippine human rights observer Jerome Succor Aba at an April 23 demonstration. Photo: Christina A. DiEdoardo
Activists at San Francisco International Airport protested the detention and removal from the U.S. of Philippine human rights observer Jerome Succor Aba at an April 23 demonstration. Photo: Christina A. DiEdoardo  

To most travelers, San Francisco International Airport is a welcoming gateway to the Bay Area. To Jerome Succor Aba, it's the spot where he was held for 28 hours without access to a lawyer, where his visa to enter the U.S. was revoked, and where he was allegedly tortured by Customs and Border Protection agents before they sent him back to the Philippines.

On Monday, April 23, about 200-300 people demonstrated outside and inside SFO to demand that those responsible for what happened to Aba be held accountable. The event was organized by a coalition of organizations led by the International Coalition for Human Rights in the Philippines.

"What I'm here to do today is to tell you Jerome's story," said Sharif Zakout, an organizer with the Arab Resource and Organizing Center. Zakout then read a translation of the remarks Aba made in Tagalog upon his return to the Philippines.

"[CBP] took my personal belongings, my laptop, and cellphone, without my consent," Aba said, according to Zakout. "I started asserting my human rights. I have the right of access to a lawyer.

"They said I have no rights, because I am not a citizen of America," he wrote.

CBP agents then reportedly engaged in behavior that more closely resembled abuses committed by CIA interrogators in Afghanistan than normal questioning by customs officers at a suburban airport.

"In an empty and stainless room where they were questioning me, they commanded me to undress," Aba said through Zakout. "I asserted this is illegal, this is cruel, this is inhumane, this is a violation of my human rights."

After Aba complied with the agents' demand that he remove his clothes, "it was cold, and they made it colder," he said, through Zakout. "They brought in a very big electric fan and they turned it on. It was so cold, I was naked, and they left me in there with the fan."

Zakout said Aba remembered "the main interrogator, an agent bearing the badge 'Lopez' telling him 'Be good here, be nice here. If you do anything bad, I will not hesitate to shoot you."

Sure enough, according to Aba, "Every time I moved, [Lopez] would reach for his sidearm."

Zakout said the CBP interrogated Aba for hours "about his affiliations, his political beliefs, and his cultural effects," including Aba's "participation in rallies, [his] views on U.S.-Philippine relations, martial law in Mindanao, and [President Rodrigo] Duterte's drug war, which has taken over 13,000 lives," he said.

To the activists, these questions offered a clue as to the CBP's motivations in detaining Aba.

Mindanao is the southernmost island in the Philippine chain and where most of the Moro, or the Muslim population of the Philippines, live. For most of the last 400 years, the Moro have been fighting for self-determination against a succession of governments - from the Spanish to the Americans to the present regime in Manila - and in every case, their antagonists have deployed exceptionally harsh measures to suppress them.

These have ranged from the U.S. Army's killing of 1,000 Moros - many of which were women and children - in March 1906 at the Moro Crater Massacre to Duterte's more recent military strikes on targets in Mindanao, as well as his so-called war on drugs, which his political opponents see as a fig leaf for the Duterte government's extrajudicial murder of those it considers to be undesirables.

It is true that there's a history of armed struggle in Mindanao by Islamist groups whose world view is closer to that held by al-Qaida and the Islamic State, but there's no public indication Aba was involved with any of them.

Instead, besides his work as a human rights observer, he serves as the chair of Suara Bangsamoro, or "Voice of the Moro People," which began as a political party, but now more closely resembles a non-governmental organization, at least according to some observers. Last November, members of Suara Bangsamoro helped fill the streets of Manila as part of protests against the Association of Southeast Asian Nations meeting, which specifically targeted both Duterte and President Donald Trump for criticism.

While the United States has imposed sanctions on various individuals and entities in the Philippines for alleged involvement in criminal or terrorist activity, neither Sura Bangsamoro nor Aba appear on the public lists maintained by the U.S. Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control, which is responsible for maintaining them.

Zakout said that after nearly a day in detention, Aba's captors offered him food for the first time.

"Adding insult to injury, CBP disrespected his religion by deliberately serving him pork," Zakout said. "They asked [Aba] 'What do you want to eat?' [Aba] said 'I don't eat pork.'

"They replied, 'What do you think of ham?'" and gave Aba a bread and ham sandwich, said Zakout.

According to Zakout, the CBP refused to release Aba until he signed a blank paper (to which a statement would presumably be added later) and recorded a video where he said he had not been tortured.

"So, this happened right here at SFO," Zakout said. "We're here today to say no to torture at SFO, no to torture happening here and #Justice4Jerome."

Not surprisingly, a spokesperson for CBP, who declined to be identified by name, had a different view.

"These allegations of torture and religious discrimination made by Mr. Aba are false," the person said. According to the person, "Mr. Aba was referred for a secondary examination, where it was determined he was inadmissible to the United States."

CBP also denied that Aba had been removed from the United States by its order, asserting that he voluntarily decided to return to the Philippines after being denied entry.

"Mr. Aba claims that during his time in CBP custody he was forced to remove all his clothing, and had a large fan pointed at him so he would be cold while being interviewed in a stainless room," said the spokesperson. "CBP interviews passengers in offices, not stainless rooms. CBP has a very strict policy regarding persons in custody and personal searches. CBP never asked Mr. Aba to remove his clothing."

The agency also denied Aba's assertion that he was served pork and was threatened with weapons or was targeted because of his political beliefs.

So far, CBP isn't saying why it believed Aba was inadmissible, at least in public.

A spokesman for SFO declined to comment.

On Tuesday, May 1, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a resolution condemning the "inhumane" treatment of Aba and other detainees at SFO by the CBP and demanding an "independent and transparent investigation" into the allegations he raised about the behavior of federal officers there.

The CBP is, in theory at least, accountable to the Office of the Inspector General within the Department of Homeland Security and a formal demand by the city to the OIG to get involved would probably carry far greater weight than one made by a private citizen.

However, for whatever reason, the city's demand for an investigation was not directed at a specific federal entity, though it did ask Senators Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris, as well as Congresswomen Nancy Pelosi and Jackie Speier to "take all action necessary to achieve the objectives of this resolution."

There are two clear takeaways from this, at least to me. First, if Aba hadn't been a political activist who was invited to America by the U.S. Conference of Bishops (as he was) and didn't have contacts in the United States with the National Lawyers Guild and others (which he did) we'd probably never have heard of his story. That begs the question of what CBP officers at SFO are doing in their secondary interrogations of passengers who lack access to the resources Aba could tap.

Second, regardless of whether one finds Aba's or the CBP's version of what happened more credible (I believe Aba, but that's not relevant for these purposes) there's a straightforward way to prevent incidents like this from happening again at SFO.

If every secondary inspection at SFO was observed by community volunteers who weren't beholden to CBP or law enforcement, then there would be a powerful deterrent against both bad behavior by CBP and the temptation of detainees to exaggerate or lie about what happened to them.

Of course, given the fact that the federal Department of Justice is suing California as I write this over the latter's demand to inspect federal immigration facilities within its borders, this may be a tough sell.

Even so, CBP would be wise to ponder the words of the late Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis.

"Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases," said Brandeis. "Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman."

So long as CBP insists on operating in the dark, it is inviting the public to assume the worst.

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