Iraq-born woman's ordeal prompts federal inquiry

Published April 14, 2006|Updated April 14, 2006

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security will investigate the treatment of an Iraq-born woman who was strip-searched at the Pinellas County Jail, where she was detained after being barred from entering the country.

Safana Jawad, 45, was sent home Thursday night without seeing the teenage son she planned to surprise or her ex-husband, who was lauded last year by Gov. Jeb Bush as a symbol of progress in Iraq.

"It was a nightmare, and now it's over," Ahmad Maki Kubba, 49, said in a telephone interview shortly after watching his ex-wife's plane take off. "But it's caused permanent damage that will be left forever."

Kubba said he was happy his ex-wife was returning home to Spain because it meant an end to what he and her supporters de

scribed at a news conference Thursday as "humiliating" treatment during interrogation at Tampa International Airport and the jail.

She was treated as if she were a common criminal, said Ahmed Bedier, director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Tampa.

Jawad was fingerprinted, photographed, strip-searched, given a navy blue jumpsuit and placed in a 6- by 6-foot maximum security cell, Bedier said.

"Why did she have to go through this?" Bedier asked. "There has to be a different way to deny people entry into the U.S. without treating them like a dangerous criminal."

Bedier said that lawyers from his organization have contacted the American Civil Liberties Union about filing a discrimination lawsuit. Jawad was singled out from other passengers on her flight because the devout Muslim was the only one wearing a head scarf, he said.

Homeland Security officials declined for a second day to provide details for why Jawad was denied entry, citing privacy concerns. Jawad said Wednesday that federal agents told her she is connected to someone they view as suspicious, but refused to identify that person.

Jawad said federal agents told her she was taken to jail because they could not arrange an earlier flight. She left at 6:45 p.m. Thursday for England, where she was scheduled to take another flight to Spain. She is a citizen of Spain, where she fled from Iraq in 1979.

It is standard procedure for a traveler denied entry to be held overnight, said Kelly Klundt, a spokeswoman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection in Washington, D.C. That can mean jail, she said.

"The jail acts as a roof over their head and they feed them, but it's not cushy," Klundt said. "They are processed, but they're not incarcerated. It's just simply a holding space." A hotel is not an option because it is not a secure facility, she said.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations in Washington, D.C., filed a complaint Thursday morning with the civil rights office of the Department of Homeland Security.

The office later faxed a letter to the council stating that it will work with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and Customs and Border Protection, to investigate "allegations of "strip-searching' and detention in poor conditions."

Sgt. Jim Bordner, a jail spokesman, said everyone brought to the jail by another agency is treated as an inmate. "Our facility is a county jail; it's not a shelter," he said.

Jawad, who was in the custody of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, was strip-searched to ensure that she had no weapons or contraband, Bordner said. Her head scarf was taken because it had metal barrettes, but she was told she could borrow a scarf from the chaplain, he said. She declined, he said.

"We try to minimize any unnecessary embarrassment and avoid any indignity," Bordner said.

This was Jawad's first trip to the United States, said Kubba, adding that he will never ask her to return. He sent her a plane ticket so she could visit their 16-year-old son, Hany, for 12 days in Clearwater. Their son aspires to join the U.S. Navy.

A vocal critic of Saddam Hussein's regime, Jawad worked for several years in the 1990s as a translator for the U.S. Embassy in Madrid, Kubba said. She now runs an antiques boutique.

Kubba, a U.S. citizen, spent 40 days in an Iraqi prison for speaking out against Hussein and left in 1979 after he was sentenced to death. He had planned Jawad's trip to coincide with the April 9 anniversary of the liberation of Iraq, he said.

"This happened at a time that the Iraqi people are saying, "Thank you America,' " he said.

Every day, at least one traveler is denied entry at a U.S. airport because of terrorism or national security concerns, Klundt said. Most of the time, the agency tries to book a return flight immediately "to inconvenience folks as little as possible," she said.