Arizona Central reports that two Eritrean refugees and another man have been held without bond after they were arrested by the Transportation Security Administration (“TSA”) at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. According to a TSA spokesman, Luwiza Daman tried to bring a suspicious device onto an airplane: “a box containing a paste-like substance with a cell phone taped to it.” TSA officers spotted the package and arrested the refugees. The “paste-like substance” turned out to be halva, a common Middle Eastern dessert, which supposedly “resemble[s] explosive material on an X-ray machine, particularly when combined with a cellphone, which is frequently used as a remote detonating device.”
After receiving so much criticism over its screening techniques, TSA is quite proud of having discovered this “fake bomb.”
I suppose it’s possible that this was–as TSA claims–a “dry run” for a terrorist bombing, but based on the publicly available information, the government’s evidence appears weak at best.
First of all, it seems bizarre to claim that halva resembles explosive material. It’s a common food in many parts of the world–friends visiting from overseas have brought me halva as a gift. I wonder if TSA would have made these arrests if the substance had been something more familiar, like peanut butter.
To be fair, the fact that a cell phone was taped to the container of halva made the TSA agents suspicious. This reminds me of a case from last year where two men from Yemen were arrested carrying packages with cell phones taped to them. No charges were filed in their cases, and officials determined that the men had no connection to terrorists. In fact, it is common for people traveling back and forth from their home countries to carry packages for others. Often mail service in these countries is unreliable (or non-existent), so people ask their countrymen to deliver packages to their families. In this case, one of the refugees was supposedly carrying the phone and the halva to Iowa to deliver to the brother of another suspect. Since they often carry packages for multiple individuals, it is not uncommon for them put each person's items together in a bag or tape them together.
This is a delicious snack.
When TSA agents questioned the suspects separately, their statements were inconsistent. However, according to Arizona Central, the agents used an Amharic interpreter. The principle language of Eritrea is Tigrinya and the suspects’ first language is Kunama. It’s unclear why the agents did not find an interpreter for a language the suspects spoke (interpreters for most languages are available by telephone). Therefore, any inconsistencies, indeed, any statements made by the suspects are of little value.
In denying bond, the judge noted that the case presents the court with two possibilities:
“One, a significant injustice to individuals lawfully present in the United States as refugees because they allegedly misunderstood English,” he said. “Or a knowing and intentional attempt by someone … to attempt a dry run.”
Given the stakes involved, it’s hard to blame the TSA for arresting the refugees, but considering the scanty evidence, this looks more like a case of the TSA getting ahead of itself than a case of terrorists on a practice run.
Originally posted on the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com.
Jason Dzubow's practice focuses on immigration law, asylum, and appellate litigation. Mr. Dzubow is admitted to practice law in the federal and state courts of Washington, DC and Maryland, the United States Courts of Appeals for the Third, Fourth, Eleventh, and DC Circuits, all Immigration Courts in the United States, and the Board of Immigration Appeals. He is a member of the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) and the Capital Area Immigrant Rights (CAIR) Coalition. In June 2009, CAIR Coalition honored Mr. Dzubow for his Outstanding Commitment to Defending the Rights and Dignity of Detained Immigrants.