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Friday, April 18, 2014

House demands DOJ probe

Lawmakers issued yesterday a strongly worded demand to the U.S. Department of Justice to probe the controversial operation initiated by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration at the Saipan airport on Oct. 4.

“The House of Representatives of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands hereby calls for a full and complete investigation into the activities and the causes of those activities that led to an episode at the Francisco C. Ada Saipan International Airport that embarrassed and degraded honored guests of the Northern Mariana Islands and may have violated their civil rights,” states a resolution adopted by the legislators yesterday.

The lawmakers also seek full disclosure of the details surrounding what they called “highly irregular search procedures conducted only on Chinese citizens irrespective of anti-profiling directives.” Further, they insist that the DOJ inform Chinese officials that the DEA, and not the local customs or immigration officials, were responsible for the incident.

At issue in the lawmakers’ demands was the DEA’s operation where 147 of 187 arriving passengers on a Shanghai Airlines flight were subjected to intensive body searches at the Saipan International Airport. Tour operators report that agents corralled the passengers—all Chinese—into a small room and searched even the most private parts of their bodies, in addition to checking every piece of luggage they carried.

The DEA says it was acting on a tip about narcotics on the flight. Although the searches yielded no illegal drugs, some contraband items such as illegal plant and animal products were reportedly intercepted during the operation.

“These searches, and the abhorrent treatment of the passengers subjected to it, caused extreme embarrassment, discomfort, fear, and a feeling of perverse violation to the affected tourists and other guests of the Commonwealth,” states the House-adopted resolution. It adds that the body searches were “harsh and irrational,” and caused irreparable harm “to the reputation of the Commonwealth and to the psyches of the victims of this demeaning episode.”

According to the lawmakers, the federal government must reveal details of the tip, which the DEA says prompted the operation. Further, the DEA must apologize to the tourists and to the Chinese government, they said.

The strong language used in the resolution caused some concern among several House members. Foreign and Federal Relations Committee chair Diego Benavente moved to remove a provision containing the phrase “multiple fondling of [the passengers’] private parts.” The House adopted the amendment.

Rep. Tina Sablan also proposed a host of amendments to remove “inflammatory language” from the resolution, but the majority shot down her proposal. She voted against the resolution.

Rep. Stanley T. Torres, sponsor of the resolution, said there is an urgent need for the CNMI to send a strong message that it does not condone the episode. House Minority Leader Oscar M. Babauta agreed, saying the procedures followed during the DEA’s operation were “indeed highly irregular.”

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