When I got a message from Lumad leader Kerlan Fanagel on April 19 about the arrest and detention of Suara Bangsamoro chair and SANDUGO co-chair, Jerome Aladdin Succor Aba, at the San Francisco International Office, I got fearful and angry. Fearful for what might happen to Jerome at the hands of the agents of US Customs and Border Protection and Department of Homeland Security who are in charge of his arrest and detention, angry at the thought that Jerome was ensnared in a US government plot – to present another innocent civilian as a terrorist for their anti-terror war.
Jerome was invited by the General Board of Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church, Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, US Conference of Catholic Bishops, and the International Coalition for Human Rights in the Philippines – US to speak in the Ecumenical Advocacy Days in the US to talk about the current human rights situation under Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration, including the impacts of the declaration of Martial Law in Mindanao, the drug war and the new US military policy.
But upon arriving at the San Francisco International Airport (SFO) on April 18, he was denied entry in the US, immediately arrested by the CBP agents, tortured into admitting he is a terrorist and forced to sign a waiver, detained for 28 hours and deported without seeing the group that invited him or a lawyer to represent his rights.
All of us, who have heard Jerome’s testimony at the press conference in Quezon City on April 21, whether in person or via FB live, cannot help but cry and be angry for what he had gone through. The CBP agents took his belongings including laptop and cellphone. He was brought to a stainless empty room, separated from the rest of the passengers apprehended by immigration officials. In an air-conditioned room, he was made to strip naked and brought in an electric fan and focused it on him. He was not able to eat for 28 hours because they served him a haram (prohibited) food – a ham sandwich.
He was constantly threatened he will be shot, with officers always reaching for their guns whenever they question him or he doesn’t look them in the eyes whenever he answers. He was made to answer about his affiliations with individuals and groups such as Satur Ocampo of Bayan Muna and Mohagher Iqbal of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). He was forced to sign a blank document in exchange for his release.
What was disconcerting was how the CBP officers left him alone in the room with a gun and a grenade in two separate occasions. News footage of Guantanamo Bay prison, excerpts of the Hollywood movie Rendition and news stories about falsely accused Arab and Southeast Asian Muslims who were arrested and detained when the USA Patriot Act was enacted in 2001 came into mind. I was thinking – will we ever get Jerome back if he was sent to Guantanamo Bay or to a country where the government allows torture of individuals suspected by the US government as terrorists?
Now where is President Duterte when you need his yakking about US atrocities? The case of Jerome Succor Aba may not be equal to the Bud Dajo massacre in the early 1900s that President Duterte has been telling the world about US atrocities in his first months of presidency. Jerome’s case is the first case of a Moro, a Filipino Muslim, who became a victim of US President Trump’s Muslim ban. It is a case of Islamophobia, a state-sanctioned attack on the civil liberties of people because of their religion, their activism, their strong stand against US war and atrocities.
The more I think about what happened to Jerome the more I am resolute in the accusations I have about US government atrocities, in aid of host countries for the US global “war on terror” such as the Philippines, to innocent individuals they suspect as terrorists – they plant evidence and force them to admit they are terrorists. And what is more condemnable was how the US CBP, all throughout Jerome’s ordeal, constantly reminded Jerome that, inside the US soil, he was not entitled to any of his civil and political rights.
I am reminded of the journal about Islamophobia given to me by Professor Hatem Bazian, a teaching professor at the University of California (UC), Berkeley and co-founder and Professor of Islamic Law and Theology at Zaytuna College also in Berkeley, whom I was introduced to by a Filipino activist in San Francisco during a speaking tour in the US in July 2015. Professor Bazian believes that there is “systematic targeting” of Muslims – Arabs, Palestinians and even Southeast Asian – which was fused into US immigration policies and national security, made possible to rationalize torture and other forms of human rights violations to the point of making Muslims “subhuman.”
I do not buy the “technical glitch” excuse of the CBP agents who was interviewed by the media. How could the US embassy have a problem with Jerome obtaining a US visa when they were the one who approved it? Like all of us who applied for a US visa first time, Jerome had to go through an intensive interview at the US embassy. They are not only asking for your bank account, they are also asking for your social media accounts, as if googling the name Jerome Succor Aba does not display all there is to know about him. For an embassy, and the country that it represents, who prides itself for high-tech security, there is no room for security breach made by their own immigration officers.
I remembered the news story of Prof. Abhoud Syed Lingga, a professor and researcher/writer for the Institute of Bangsamoro Studies who was invited by the United Nations Permanent Forum, Asia Society and United States Institute of Peace (USIP) to give a presentation for the forum on “Securing Peace in Mindanao: Resolving the Roots of Conflict” in New York on May 25, 2004. He was made to appeal for his US visa when he was denied in his first application. He was finally granted a visa on May 11 and had to fly immediately the next day.
Lingga was denied entry at the Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) and hence the forum was canceled and rescheduled in September the same year. Although he was able to attend, he was flagged at different airports by Philippine and US immigration officers from the Manila to New York to Washington D.C. and was almost not able to go home as he was initially denied exit at the SFO.
It is high time that the American people put a stop to the discriminatory and inhumane treatment of the US CBP and Homeland Security agents to innocent travellers that they accuse of being terrorists. Since President Donald Trump ordered the Muslim ban last year, several cases of Muslims immigrants and even US citizens were denied entry and were forced to be apart from their families. But despite of several cases of lack, and if not false evidence about their suspected “terroristic activities,” the US government has never issued an apology nor gave a financial settlement as what the Canadian government did to many Muslim immigrants and citizens they falsely accused as terrorists.
It is high time to get rid off and stop supporting policies that promote Islamophobia, xenophobia, and disregard of the democratic rights of the people masquerading as policies to “secure” the people of the United States of America. In the words of the victims of 9-11, “Not in our name!” (davaotoday.com)