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Canadian Student Detained at U.S. Airport & Interrogated Like Terrorist Suspect

Ontario Chronicle Journal | March 22, 2007
CHEN CHEKKI

A recent trip to the U.S. turned into a harrowing experience for a Lakehead University student, who claims he was detained for more than 12 hours and interrogated like a suspected terrorist.

And because his computer laptop was also seized, which had most of his school material and assignments on it, the incident might have cost him his school semester and future career.

“I felt insulted. I felt frightened. I felt very, very weak,” said 22-year-old Mahmoud Zeitoun. “That depression was the highest amount of depression of my life.”

The Lebanese-born man, who always held Canadian citizenship through his parents, was headed to Denver with local dentist Jennifer Lee and an assistant on Thursday. Zeitoun was supposed to act as Lee's patient while she performed an exam to practise in her field in the U.S.

While enroute at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport at 8:30 in the morning, Zeitoun says they were initially questioned normally as to why they were entering the U.S. and about Zeitoun's planned return on Tuesday.

But Zeitoun claims U.S. officials told him he could only enter the U.S. on the condition that he departs the U.S. through major ports between 7:30 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. — a restriction which conflicted with his planned return time on Tuesday.

He asked to speak with a supervisor, and after a deeper look into his case, was apparently told that he needed a visa to enter the country. Canadians travelling to the U.S. are not normally required to possess visas, unless they are visiting for work purposes.

Lee and the other companion left on their next flight, and it is not known if the dentist found a replacement patient for her exam.

But instead of letting Zeitoun, who holds a Canadian passport, return to Canada, they apparently detained him for a 12 1/2-hour ordeal that felt to him like “straight torture.”

Zeitoun, a Muslim, was made to sit in an interrogation room all day, facing questions about whether he has ties to the Lebanese group Hezbollah, or knows anyone who has hatred towards the U.S.

“‘What do you think of suicide bombers?'” Zeitoun said, recalling the interrogators' questions. “‘You think it's right, right? If you tell us anything, we'll let you in.'

“I'm like, ‘Please. I am a citizen here in Canada. Then you are coming to talk to me about people I don't know,'” Zeitoun recalled.

He claims the officials at the airport also checked his luggage and seized his $3,000 laptop with no guarantee of its return. It had everything he needed to complete his semester courses in science and engineering at Lakehead University this semester.

“This will bring me to an F,” said Zeitoun, who is also the president the Lakehead University Muslim Student Association, which has about 40 members.

He claims U.S. interrogators also asked him to show his Hotmail e-mail account, and allegedly made threats that they would put him in a “cell,” Zeitoun said.

Zeitoun says two years ago he was held for about five hours at the U.S. border crossing at Sault Ste. Marie, which he claims was due to nothing more than his Lebanese birthplace.

He claims he told the border agents there that he really wanted to turn around rather then enter, changing his mind mid-way because he realized it would take longer to drive through to Thunder Bay. But they detained him anyways, and later apologized for the “inconvenience.” Zeitoun says they marked him as rejected from entering the U.S. — a detail he only learned of during his detention in Minneapolis.

Zeitoun says he was not given food in Minneapolis until much later in the afternoon, and says he was allowed to call his brother Adnan in Windsor early in the evening. The brother contacted LU sociology professor Walid Chahal. Chahal contacted a Canadian national security investigator, who after a short call to a “friend” in the U.S., called back to Chahal to tell him Zeitoun would be released by 9 p.m. on Thursday.

Zeitoun and Chahal suspect the Canadian investigator, who they did not identify but both claim to know, helped speed up Zeitoun's release.

Chahal once taught Zeitoun at Lakehead University and says he is a “good person” who “likes to help.”
He said Zeitoun is a victim of racial profiling.

“(The U.S. border agents) didn't find anything on (Zeitoun) the first time or the second time,” Chahal said.
He blames Zeitoun's alleged ordeal on U.S. border security policies, which he claims leads “innocent civilians” into the kind of treatment Zeitoun says he received.

Chahal claims people are susceptible of being treated as if they are “guilty without being tried” at U.S. border crossings if their name or appearance stereotypically resembles an Arab or Muslim.
“So this is a problem, with racial profiling, anyone can be a target,” he said.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials in Minneapolis were contacted by The Chronicle-Journal on Saturday, and were told by “Officer Jackson” to call back Monday to speak to press representatives. Jackson said he “can't speak on behalf of this case.”

He said detentions of Canadians lasting as long as Zeitoun's are “not normal.”

 

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