Muslim traveller mistreated in Pinellas County Jail

Early edition

Published December 27, 2006

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has apologized to a Muslim traveller strip-searched at the Pinellas County Jail after being detained at Tampa International Airport in April.

Federal agents said they denied Spanish citizen Safana Jawad entry to the U.S. on April 11 because she was suspected of being associated with someone they view as suspicious.

Jawad, 45, was taken to the jail, strip-searched according to protocol and held in a maximum security cell for two days. She was never told the identity of the suspicious person.

Jawad, who was born in Iraq, had flown to the United States to visit her son, Hany Kubba, 16, who then lived in Clearwater with her ex-husband, Ahmad Maki Kubba.

Jawad was deported to England on April 13 and has since filed a complaint with the Department of Homeland Security about being mistreated by customs officials as well as staff at the Pinellas County Jail.

In a letter dated Dec. 8, the Department of Homeland Security apologized only for the strip search.

“On behalf of the Department of Homeland Security, I offer you my sincere apology for having to undergo a strip search,” wrote Timothy J. Keefer, deputy officer and acting chief counsel for the department’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, which handles complaints.

On Wednesday, Homeland Security would not release the name of the suspicious person Jawad was suspected of being associated with and would not comment on whether they believe she was rightfully detained.

Attached to the letter with no explanation was a photocopy of a notice that tells Transportation Security Administration officials about Muslim head coverings and how to treat Muslim travellers respectfully when searching them.

Everyone who files a complaint with the Department of Homeland Security receives a response letter. Homeland Security spokeswoman Joanna Gonzalez said she could not say how many responses include apologies because the agency keeps no statistics on the outcomes of investigations.

And Homeland Security could not provide any information on Wednesday about how many complaints the Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties receives.

After being jailed, Jawad said she was subjected not only to a strip search but to a full body cavity search.

Pinellas County sheriff’s spokesman Sgt. Jim Bordner said only a regular strip search was performed, and there was no body cavity search. The strip search is part of normal procedure for booking and processing inmates, he said.

“We followed the same protocol with her as with any inmate,” he said.

The jail conducted its own internal investigation after Jawad filed a complaint with the Sheriff’s Office on June 9 and cleared jail staff of any wrongdoing, Bordner said.

Ahmad Kubba, an American citizen for 27 years who now works as a real estate agent, said that Homeland Security’s apology means nothing to him, because the damage is already done.

Hany had to move to Spain with his mother after the incident because he was so shaken by it, Kubba said.

Jawad had planned to visit her son, who was having disciplinary problems, in April as a surprise. Instead, Hany was shocked to learn that his mother was in jail. He subsequently had to be hospitalized twice for out of control behavior, his father said. Now in Spain, Hany has calmed down a lot, although he has taken leave from school, his father said.

“I lost my son because of what happened,” said Kubba, who was lauded last year by Gov. Jeb Bush after organizing a trip where about a dozen friends went to Nashville to vote in the Iraqi election.

“I have been in this country for 27 years. I am American,” said Kubba, 49, who spent 40 days in an Iraqi prison for speaking out against Saddam Hussein. He left Iraq in 1979 after being sentenced to death, and his father was beaten to death by Hussein’s agents.

“My son wanted to be in the U.S. Navy, and he speaks both English and Arabic,” Kubba said. “He would have been just what they are looking for. What they did to (Jawad) was unfair and is hurting America.”

Kubba said he was recently profiled at Tampa International Airport when returning from Spain after visiting his son, and said his brother was detained there for two hours when he visited.

Kubba, who speaks to Jawad occasionally, said she told him she would never set foot in the United States again after what happened to her.

Ahmad Bedier, director of the Tampa branch of the Council for American-Islamic Relations, spoke with Jawad at the jail after the arrest. He has kept in touch with the family since then.

Bedier said the apology from the Department of Homeland Security is a step in the right direction, but there are still a lot of unanswered questions.

In the next two weeks, Bedier said thousands of Muslims will be returning to central Florida from their annual pilgrimage to Mecca.

On Thursday, Bedier plans to meet at Tampa International Airport with officials from the FBI, airport, Customs and Border Protection, and the Transportation Security Administration to discuss measures to prevent unnecessary profiling of Muslim travellers as they return from Saudi Arabia.

“I am concerned about their treatment when they return,” Bedier said.

Times staff writer Sheela Raman can be reached at sraman@sptimes.com and (727) 445-4158.