The San Francisco Board of Supervisors planned to vote Tuesday on a resolution condemning the inhumane treatment of detainees held at San Francisco International Airport (SFO).
Supervisor Hillary Ronen is leading the push for the immediate adoption of the resolution, as well as an independent investigation into the detainment of a well-known human rights activist from the Philippines.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) detained Jerome Aladdin Succor Aba on April 17 as he was on his way to Washington D.C., where he was scheduled to speak about issues facing the Philippines' Muslim and indigenous populations.
Terry Valen, president of the National Alliance for Filipino Concerns and the executive director of the Filipino Community Center in San Francisco, said the activist, "suffered physical and psychological torture in the hands of the Customs and Border Protection and Homeland Security agents at the airport."
In a press release, Jessica Antonio, secretary general for the Filipino rights advocacy group Bayan USA, provided details of Aba's alleged treatment at the airport.
Despite having a valid U.S. visa and official invitations by church institutions and community organizations to speak at multiple events in the U.S., Aba was treated as an enemy combatant and subjected to rendition-style interrogation, including being forced to strip naked in front of an industrial fan blowing cold air. He was repeatedly asked if he was a “terrorist” or “communist,” of his affiliations with renowned mass leaders in the Philippines, and his opinion of U.S. and Philippine political relations by CBP officials, who held him for 28 hours without access to a lawyer.
Supervisor Aaron Peskin, a strong advocate of the proposal, said he expects all of the supervisors will back Tuesday's vote. He found the particulars of Aba’s case disturbing.
"An individual has allegedly been tortured and held without access to legal counsel for a significant period of time," Peskin said. "And the message coming from San Francisco's elected body is 'this is not going to happen in San Francisco or San Francisco's international airport.'"
CBP issued a statement denying the allegations.
"These allegations of torture and religious discrimination made by Mr. Aba are false. CBP exercised discretion, allowing Mr. Aba to voluntarily withdraw his application for admission into the United States. CBP did not issue a removal order for Mr. Aba and he waited overnight to be returned on the next available flight in the CBP waiting lounge, along with several other travelers."
The statement also refuted the particulars of Aba's accusations of mistreatment:
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. 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.
Earlier reports stated that Aba was denied entry to the U.S. owing to a "technical glitch" with his visa. On Monday, the CBP cited "Aba’s connection to individuals within terrorist networks" as the reason.
Valen said Aba's specific case instigated the supervisors' vote. But he says it's possible other people might also have experienced extended detainments and harsh treatment at SFO and other U.S. airports.
"There's a range of what's happening to travelers coming into SFO and other airports from secondary questioning folks all the way to this level of physical and psychological torture of Jerome Aba," Valen said. "So we imagine that this has happened to others."
Various groups are threatening legal proceedings against CBP, including Bayan USA.
Meanwhile, a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said the organization sent a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to CBP for all of the agency's relevant documents and evidence concerning Aba's case.