Secret no-fly list blamed for American Muslim's Bangkok nightmare

Motiwala-returnedA Pomona medical student spent 10 nights in an airport detention area after, he believes, his name turned up on the list. His ordeal underscores the mystery surrounding the government roster.

By Shashank Bengali, Los Angeles Times

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, as he traveled 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.

Motiwala's travel nightmare ended Friday morning when he was finally granted permission to fly out of Bangkok. But his ordeal underscores the mystery that continues to surround the no-fly list 12 years after its creation. U.S. officials refuse to say who's on the list or why, arguing that any explanation could alert potential terrorists about who is being watched.

In 2010, after the American Civil Liberties Union challenged the no-fly list, the government said it had created a procedure to bring American citizens and permanent residents stuck overseas back to the United States regardless of their no-fly status. The goal was to "quickly resolve the travel issues of U.S. persons located abroad," a senior FBI official told a federal court at the time.

Cases like Motiwala's show how the government has failed to carry out that policy, civil rights groups say.

"The onus is really on the government to facilitate the return of this person," said Fatima Dadabhoy, an attorney with the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Los Angeles, which is representing Motiwala. "Whether or not they're on the no-fly list, they can still come home."

The group says it is handling at least two other cases of U.S. people from the L.A. area who have been barred from flying and are marooned abroad. (Full article)


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