U.S. Customs officials: Filipino activist detained at SFO was treated fairly


U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials today refuted claims of torture made by a Filipino human rights activist, who said he was detained at San Francisco International Airport in April.

During a tour of their facility at the airport this morning, CBP Director of Field Operations Brian Humphrey said today's event was to show the department's transparency.

"CPB takes all of those accusations very seriously and when those accusations include false information involving an individual, we will respond to correct the record, set it straight, and that's what we've done," Humphrey said.

Jerome Aladdin Aba, a human rights activist from the Philippines, traveled to SFO from Manila on April 17 with a visa, but was denied entry to the U.S. During what he said was a 28-hour detainment at the airport's CBP office, Aba said he was forced to strip naked in front of an industrial fan during a lengthy interrogation, in which he said he was questioned about his political beliefs.

At one point, Aba said he was left alone with a gun and later a hand grenade in an apparent attempt to tempt him into using the weapons.

Additionally, Aba said he was not given food until 24 hours into his detainment. He also said that, although he told CBP officers that he was Muslim, they still offered him a ham sandwich.

"We certainly would never place an individual in a locked room by themselves with a loaded firearm that could be used to harm our own officers or other passengers in the airport. So that accusation is clearly false, supported by the video evidence we have from our camera systems," Humphrey said.

"There was an accusation that he was locked in a room on a second occasion with a hand grenade, and I would like to reassure that CBP does not issue, or equip itself with or train with hand grenades. And if we're issued that equipment, we would never lock a passenger in a room with a device that 
could be used to harm our own officers or others in that area," he said.

"There were accusations that we knowingly and willingly fed him food items that were contrary to religious beliefs, which I can also assure you, based on a review of all the evidence, all reports, the video footage, and personal knowledge of the food processing agreement that we have with vendors here at the airport, that that was also false," Humphrey said.

Humphrey added that Aba was fed breakfast, an egg and cheese sandwich, but declined lunch and then chose a turkey and cheddar cheese sandwich along with a cup of coffee for dinner.

During this morning's tour, Humphrey gave reporters access to the areas where Aba said he had spent his detainment, which included two waiting areas, a conference room where he was searched and questioned, and a lounge, equipped with chairs and reclining couches.

As he was in detention, customs officials determined that Aba was inadmissible into the U.S. and sent him on a flight back to Manila.

According to Humphrey, Aba's detainment lasted about 28 hours, in part, because of flight schedules, with no planes that were heading back to Manila.

"There are a number of reasons that an individual can be determined inadmissible," Humphrey said. "As far as the inspection process... we begin that far before arrival. As soon as we start receiving manifest information from carriers, which is required under law, we begin our vetting process of passengers, we run them through our automated system, we run them through our various databases, we communicate with other agencies, we collect all of that information and start making determinations on who is and who is not admissible to this country," he said.

"He (Aba) was an individual that we knew, based on the information we had pre-arrival, that it was someone we needed to further inquire about," Humphrey said.

CBP would not say why Aba was denied entry into the U.S., but that it had nothing to do with his political activism.

Because Aba's detainment was an administrative matter and not a criminal one, Humphrey said, Aba was not entitled to any legal representation.

When asked why Aba would make up claims of mistreatment, Humphrey said he didn't know, but said that a large amount of evidence from an internal investigation, including officer statements and video surveillance footage, proves that Aba's claims never happened. Humphrey said the video footage is currently in the hands of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Office of the Inspector General, which is currently conducting its own investigation into the incident.

Aba had arrived from the Philippines to be a guest speaker in the Stop the Killings Speaking Tour, which was meant to bring awareness about repressive conditions under Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte.

According to Terry Valens with the International Coalition for Human Rights in the Philippines, which helped organize the speaking tour that Aba was to be a part of, CBP officials have been less than forthcoming with them.

"From the day he landed, we asked for access to the facility, and they denied it. We think they're really trying to cover up and backpedal," he said.

"It's been more than a month now since we called for clear answers and accountability about what happened... This is the San Francisco Bay Area, we can't have torture happening where there are sanctuary laws," he said.

Valens said Aba is still traumatized by the ordeal and has trouble sleeping because of it.

Earlier this month, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a resolution condemning inhumane treatment of foreign nationals detained at San Francisco International Airport by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. They've also called on federal officials to open an investigation into Aba's allegations.

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