Majed Shehadeh wanted to pay a surprise visit to his daughter, who had just passed the California bar exam. The 62-year-old German businessman of Syrian descent planned to fly from Frankfurt to Las Vegas, meet his American wife there, and then drive to Bakersfield, California to spend New Year with their American-born daughter.
"I gave them my German passport and he looked to see which countries I visited," Shehadeh told Associated Press Tuesday in a telephone interview from his home in Bavaria. "He found I had stamps that looked like Arabic and asked if they were fake." Shehadeh tried to explain that the stamps, which were from visits he had made to Lebanon and Syria, were real and that he had paid for the visas. But the official was not satisfied with his answers and led Shehadeh into a side room.
Shehadeh was interrogated by Border Protection and FBI agents for more than 12 hours at the airport. "Nobody ever informed me why I was being questioned," he told AP. "All that was ever told to me was this had to do with Washington."
Shehadeh was asked about the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The officials wanted to know if he knew the perpetrators. Then other officials came with new questions, about another political murder in Beirut. "I couldn't tell the police anything in answer to their questions," he told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "I only knew the cases from the newspapers."
According to Shehadeh's wife Joanne Mulligan, officials told family members they had denied Shehadeh's visa waiver, which grants citizens of several countries, including Germany, the right to enter the US without applying for a visa. Shehadeh has been a regular visitor to the USA for several years and has had a house there since the late 1970s.
After questioning, Shehadeh was handcuffed and transported in a police car to a Las Vegas jail, where his shoes, jacket and prescribed heart medicine were taken away. "My nose was bleeding and I was afraid I would have a heart attack," he said. "But nobody was interested."
He was locked in a cell with over 20 other detainees, who he said were mostly illegal immigrants and drug dealers. The cell had one toilet facility, in the middle of the room, and telephone access was extremely limited. "I was treated like a terrorist," he said.
He stayed there until Sunday -- New Year's Eve -- when he was released and sent home to Germany. "Nobody wants to spend New Year's Eve in the air," he said. "But I was extremely glad that I was free again."
The Council on American-Islamic Relations, a civil rights group, called the case an example of anti-Muslim discrimination. "Overall these cases send a message that Muslims are second-class citizens who can be detained and kept from their families," said Affad Shaikn, a civil rights coordinator with the group. There are reports that Muslims have recently been subject to unusually stringent controls at US immigration.
US Customs and Border Protection spokeswoman Roxanne Hercules confirmed Tuesday that Shehadeh was denied entry, but declined to discuss specifics of the case. She told AP that Shehadeh's visa waiver could have been denied because "he could have a criminal record, or it could be a terrorism issue."
The German Foreign Ministry told SPIEGEL ONLINE Wednesday they were investigating the case. A spokesperson said there had been several similar cases in the last few years, without specifying a number.
Shehadeh said he would not try to enter the US on the visa waiver program again, but would apply for a visa in advance.
He is bitter about the way he was treated by the US authorities. "The USA gave my wife and me the best that the country has," he said. "Now they have taken my honor."
With reporting by Matthias Gebauer.
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