Using the no-fly list as a weapon of coercion

The Los Angeles Times published a grim tale of someone who got trapped in the Kafkaesque world occupied by those on the infamous ‘no fly list’.

For two weeks, Rehan Motiwala, a 29-year-old medical student from Pomona, sat stranded at the Bangkok airport, sleeping for 10 nights on a roach-infested mattress in a dank, windowless detention room reserved for deportees.
Motiwala, a U.S. citizen, wanted to return to his family in Southern California. But earlier this month, en route from Jakarta, Indonesia, to LAX, airline staff in Bangkok refused to issue him a boarding pass for his connecting flight. U.S. and Thai officials told him that he could not travel but offered no explanation, leading him to believe he’d been placed on the U.S. government’s secret no-fly list.

After dozing on benches and wandering the airport terminal for four nights, Motiwala was told that a Justice Department official had arrived from the United States to question him. When he declined to answer questions without a lawyer present, U.S. officials left him in the custody of Thai authorities, who tossed him into a detention center in the bowels of Suvarnabhumi Airport.

“They treat you like an animal,” Motiwala said in a phone interview.

As usual, the government is refusing to give out any information on the Motiwala case.

While travelers can petition to be removed from the no-fly list, civil liberties advocates say the Department of Homeland Security’s redress process is so opaque that the only way to know if you’ve been cleared is to attempt to fly again.

State and Justice Department officials in Washington offered no information about Motiwala’s status, saying they couldn’t discuss specific cases. The American Embassy in Bangkok, whose consular officers were in contact with Motiwala during his detention, declined to comment.

Government secrecy is now the default. They can do anything to you but they don’t have to say why.

What I didn’t understand is why, if they suspect someone of being a potential criminal, they don’t question them while they are here and even try to prevent them from leaving the US, rather than waiting until they leave and stopping them from coming back, leaving them trapped in a foreign country. Kevin Drum shares my puzzlement and comes up with a possible explanation.

If authorities wanted to question Motiwala, they obviously knew where he was. All they had to do was wait for him to disembark at LAX and take him into custody. So what’s the point? I guess the LAX option doesn’t give them the leverage of throwing him into a rat-infested hellhole if he doesn’t cooperate. Welcome to America.

I think Drum is right. People feel much more helpless when they are in a foreign country. If faced with the option of abandoning their rights and talking to a US official or being held indefinitely all alone in a foreign prison, people are likely to choose the former. What happened with Motiwala fuels that suspicion.

When he declined to talk with U.S. officials without a lawyer, they tried to bully him, Motiwala’s lawyers said. The officials told him that returning to the U.S. was a privilege, not a right. One sarcastically suggested traveling to Afghanistan instead. When they finally left, the legal attaché told Thai authorities: “We don’t care what happens. Do whatever you want to him.”

Really? US citizens do not have the right to enter their own country? Surely that can’t be right. But these days when the government feels that it has the right to ignore even those rights that are explicitly spelled out in the constitution, we should not be surprised that it views all other rights as also dispensable.