A human rights activist who was attempting to visit the U.S. from the Philippines last week claims he was supplied with weapons and tortured by federal agents during a 28-hour detention at San Francisco International Airport.
Jerome Aladdin Aba arrived at SFO around 8 p.m. last Tuesday, but was detained for questioning by U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents due to unspecified problems with his visa. He was eventually denied entry, and was placed on a departing flight to Manila around 12:30 a.m. Thursday.
In a subsequent news conference, Aba said he was forced to strip naked in an air-conditioned room and stand in front of a large fan during a lengthy interrogation.
Aba claims he was questioned extensively about his political beliefs and President Rodrigo Duterte’s controversial drug war, which has been condemned by human rights activists who say that thousands have died in the ensuing civil unrest.
President Donald Trump has praised Duterte’s actions, saying his Filipino counterpart has done an unbelievable job combating illicit drugs, according to an article by the New York Times last May. This was one of the human rights issues Aba was visiting the U.S. to discuss.
One of his interrogating officers, identified only as Lopez, repeatedly touched a handgun he was wearing and said he would “not hesitate to shoot,” Aba said.
While in detention, 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. He has speculated that this may have been an effort to portray him as a suicide bomber.
Before authorizing his release, Aba claims he was coerced into signing a blank document. He included the letters U.P. to indicate that he did so under pressure or duress, but federal agents reportedly made him sign another one and then forced him to record a video statement saying that he hadn’t been tortured.
A U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesman said today in a statement that the agency is aware of the allegations, but claimed they are false.
Customs officials say he was not asked to remove his clothing. Their officers would never give Aba access to a weapon he could potentially use against them, and their airport personnel don’t have hand grenades.
Among other forms of mistreatment, Aba said he informed customs officials that he could not eat pork due to his religious beliefs as a Muslim, and they responded by offering him a ham sandwich after depriving him of food for 24 hours.
Agency officials said Aba was kept in a “lounge” area with reclining chairs and blankets where he had access to food, water and bathroom facilities.
They refuted Aba’s claims about the ham sandwich, saying that while he was in custody they provided an egg and cheese sandwich as well as a turkey and cheese sandwich. He was also offered noodles, but declined.
A CBP spokesman said in a statement:
“No pork was provided and no religious discrimination took place.”
Aba and his colleagues with the International Coalition for Human Rights in the Philippines have called on U.S. Sen. Diane Feinstein and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, to condemn the alleged actions of the customs agents involved in Aba’s case.
Their offices did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the matter.