Pakistani Voice of America Journalist Detained at Dulles Airport Is Released

By N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 20, 2009

U.S. immigration officials released a visiting Pakistani journalist employed by the U.S.-sponsored Voice of America news service Wednesday, 10 days after taking him into custody on his arrival at Dulles International Airport.

Rahman Bunairee, 33, was hoping to find refuge in the United States after receiving threats in recent weeks from Islamic militants displeased with his reports about their activities in Pakistan's restive North-West Frontier Province.

The militants destroyed Bunairee's family home in the province, then came looking for him at his office in the port city of Karachi several hundred miles south, where Bunairee is also bureau chief for the privately owned Pakistani broadcaster Khyber TV.

Concerned for his safety, officials at VOA quickly arranged to bring Bunairee to the United States on a J-1 visa, often used by research institutions to sponsor scholars on temporary exchange programs. Bunairee was to work on expanding VOA's Pashto language service, which serves the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region.

Bunairee's attorney, Paul Virtue, whose law firm, Hogan & Hartson, is representing Bunairee for free, said that during his initial interview with a customs officer at Dulles, the officer learned that Bunairee had reason to fear returning to Pakistan.

There might have been some confusion because of Bunairee's limited English, Virtue said, but "essentially the officer determined that [Bunairee's] principal purpose for coming to the United States was to get out of Pakistan . . . and that the exchange program at VOA was only incidental or secondary. . . . So they found him not to be admissible under J-1 status."

At that point, under the provisions of immigration law, Bunairee was placed in "expedited removal proceedings," which required that he be detained until an asylum officer could interview him to determine whether he had a "credible fear" of being harmed if he were deported. If the officer determines the fear is unfounded, detainees can be deported immediately without the chance to make their case before an immigration judge.

However, an officer who interviewed Bunairee on Tuesday determined on Wednesday that his fear is credible, making him eligible for parole while he requests asylum or several other forms of relief from an immigration judge. Reapplying for the J-1 visa is not an option.

Virtue, who once was general counsel of the former Immigration and Naturalization Service, said he was not sure which approach Bunairee would take.

Virtue did not fault VOA for sponsoring Bunairee under a J-1 visa under the circumstances, saying that although the organization was partly motivated by a desire to help him leave Pakistan as quickly as possible, it had a genuine need for a journalist with Bunairee's experience and language skills. The plan to expand the Pashto language service predated the threats against Bunairee, he said.

Virtue declined to comment on whether immigration officers acted fairly in detaining Bunairee but said: "I think the government is responsible for administering a statute that is very rigid and doesn't leave them with a lot of options for dealing with these kinds of cases. . . .There are some changes that could be made to the statute that would offer other ways of helping people come to the United States who are at risk in their home country."

A spokeswoman at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, whose officers conduct credible-fear interviews, said privacy concerns prevented her from discussing Bunairee's case.

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