Jerome Succor Aba, the 25-year old peace advocate from Mindanao, Philippines who was denied entry to the US at the San Francisco International Airport (SFO) on Tuesday, April 18,  spoke for the first time at a press conference in the Philippines yesterday about his ordeal during the 28 hours he was detained and held incommunicado by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). Aba’s testimony was spoken in Tagalog and was translated to English

Aba opened up his testimony with the following:  “First I want to say that this is the first time that I am facing the media since this happened to me at the hands of the Homeland Security agency in the United States. I am a human rights worker. I documented human rights violations during the time of the Mamasapano encounter. I was there during the Kidapawan massacre on April 1, 2016. I also documented human rights violations that happened in Marawi and during the martial law of President Duterte. I am not used to being the one now directly victimized.”

Denial of Right to Counsel

Aba described what happened immediately after he was taken by CBP agents for secondary screening: “They took my personal belongings, my laptop and cell phone, without my consent. That is already a violation of my right to privacy and I started asserting my human rights. I have the right to access a lawyer. They said I have no right, because I’m not a citizen of America. I am not a US citizen, but I am entitled to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They said ‘you are not entitled to that.’ While that was happening, I was handcuffed.”

Inhumane Treatment/ Physical Threats

Aba described his cruel and inhumane treatment.  “In an empty room, stainless room, while they were questioning me, they commanded me to undress. Then I asserted that this is illegal, this is cruel, this is inhumane, this is a violation of human rights. Over and over they repeated, ‘you are not entitled.’ I took off my clothes. It was cold, and they made it colder. They brought in a very big electric fan, they turned it on. It was so cold. I was naked. They left me there with the fan.”

Aba continued: “I was afraid to use the restroom, because they might make a drama that I was trying to escape and they might shoot me.” He was escorted to the restroom by 5 agents.  He remembers the main interrogator, an agent bearing the badge Lopez, telling him, “‘Be good here, be nice here, if you do anything bad, I will not hesitate to shoot you.’ Every time I moved he would reach for his side arm (firearm).”

Targeted for Human Rights Work and being a Muslim

Aba was extensively interrogated about his affiliations, his political beliefs, and his cultural effects.  Aba was asked about his participation in rallies, views on U.S.-Philippine relations, Martial Law in Mindanao and Duterte’s Drug War that has taken over 13,000 lives.  Aba was repeatedly accused of being a “terrorist” and a “communist”. On two separate occasions he was left in a room with a gun and later a grenade, as if attempting to entrap him into using the items. Said Aba, “What do they want? Do they want to portray me as a suicide bomber? Is that how they want to show how Muslims are?”

Aba described how he was offered food only after 24 hours of detainment.   Adding insult to injury, CBP disrespected his religion by deliberately serving him pork.  “They asked, ‘What do you want to eat?’ I said, ‘I don’t eat pork.’ [They replied,] ‘What do you think of Ham?’ [He said] ‘Ham is pork and is also a violation of my religious belief.’ They gave me bread with ham, pork.”

COERCION AND COVER- UP

Aba also testified about the coercion he experienced: “[Lopez] He said in order to be released, sign this. It’s a blank paper. Because I was so exhausted, I signed it. I tried to write ‘UP’ to mean ‘under pressure’ but he took the paper, and made me sign another piece of paper. So I did it.”  Before Aba was released, the agents also shredded in front of him a foot-tall stack of papers that the agents purported were their profile on him and he was made to record a statement on video that he was not tortured.

While Aba was held incommunicado and denied access to legal counsel, an attorney from the National Lawyers Guild (NLG) was at SFO trying to talk with CBP to represent Aba.  Rachel Lederman of the NLG called CBP offices repeatedly and was told she would be called back. Rachel Lederman and Judith Mirkinson, SF-Chapter President of the NLG were at SFO from approximately 8 am to midnight of April 18 and were not allowed access to Aba.  Meanwhile, CBP officials contacted by offices of Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi and Senator Diane Feinstein were informed that Aba was being detained on a “soft disposition” or “something that could easily be overcome.”

CBP  spokesman Jaime Ruiz also made the statement that “U.S. Customs and Border Protection does not consider country of origin or human rights activism to be determining factors for admissibility.”  Meanwhile, Aba was extensively interrogated about his national affiliations, his political beliefs, and his cultural effects and was repeatedly accused of being a “terrorist” and a “communist”.

Aba was invited by the General Board of  Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church, Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, US Conference of Catholic Bishops, and the International Coalition for Human Rights in the Philippines – US, to speak in the Ecumenical Advocacy Days and a peace caravan in the US this April 19 to May 14.   He was given a 10 -year multiple entry visa by the US Embassy in Manila and was scheduled to meet with several congressional offices and human rights organizations.

“All of us at at the Ecumenical Advocacy Days were deeply disturbed to hear about Mr. Jerome Aba’s mistreatment and subjection to harsh and degrading measures while detained for over 24 hours without access to a lawyer.  That a human rights defender like Jerome Aba would be so harshly mistreated and denied entry only redoubles our conviction to address both urgent human rights crisis in the Philippines and to call for investigation into his treatment by CBP,” said David Wildman, Executive Secretary for Human Rights and Racial Justice of the General Board of Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church.

“We are appalled at the inhumane and cruel treatment of Jerome Aba and the  physical and psychological abuse he was subjected to including physical threats, intimidation, and coercion.” said Pam Tau Lee, Chairperson of the U.S. chapter of the International Coalition for Human Rights in the Philippines.

“Mr. Aba’s rights were violated. He was subjected to blatant racial profiling and anti-Muslim accusations.  His legal and human rights were wholly disregarded. It is so reprehensible that Mr. Aba travelled to the U.S. so that he may be a voice for the hundreds of thousands of urban poor, indigenous people and national minorities being victimized under Philippine President Duterte’s brutal drug war, martial law and counter-insurgency war, only to become a human rights victim himself suffering dehumanizing treatment at the hands of Homeland Security agents at SFO.” Continued Lee.

“Mr. Aba’s treatment at SFO, in our “sanctuary city” goes against everything we stand for as San Franciscans. We call on our federal representatives and all City officials to condemn these horrendous attacks on human rights in our own backyard,” added Pam Tau Lee who is a long-time San Francisco resident and labor, indigenous and environmental rights activist currently in Washington DC participating in the Ecumenical Advocacy Days.

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