MONTREAL — A Montreal university student was detained at the U.S. border, held for several hours, interrogated, had his personal belongings searched and saw his computer confiscated for over a week.
What caught the authorities’ attention? His doctoral research on Islamic studies, he says.
In a case that has attracted media attention in the U.S., Pascal Abidor has become embroiled in a drawn-out legal battle with the American government — and a poster child for civil-rights advocates defending the right to privacy and due process.
Abidor, a 28-year-old American and French dual citizen, was returning by train to Brooklyn in May 2010 when a U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent stopped him at the border in Champlain, N.Y.
The agent turned on Abidor’s computer and found photos of rallies by the Hamas militant group. He says he explained that he had downloaded them from Google as part of his McGill University doctoral dissertation on the modern history of Shiites in Lebanon.
The agent also saw stamps in his passport that showed he had travelled between Jordan and Lebanon.
Abidor said the agents handcuffed him, took him off the train and kept him in a holding cell for several hours. He was grilled over his interest in Islam and past trips to the Middle East, before he was let go at the border. He was able to catch a ride on a bus passing through the border and continue to Brooklyn.
When Abidor’s laptop was returned 11 days later, there was evidence that many of his personal files, including research, photos and chats with his girlfriend, had been opened, he said.
Abidor, who isn’t Muslim, said the experience was eye-opening. It was the first such incident in the many times he had passed through the Canadian-American border.
In the days that followed, he had trouble sleeping and developed an “unhealthy mix of rage and fear,” Abidor said.
“Ridiculous and absurd are the words that come to mind,” he said of the episode.
“I thought to myself, ‘I’m going to at least try to do something to make a stink out of this.”’
Civil rights groups, led by the American Civil Liberties Union, took up his case, and filed a lawsuit on his behalf in September 2010.
The lawsuit contests policies adopted by U.S. government agencies permitting the search of all electronic devices that contain information, including laptops, cameras, mobile phones and smart phones.
More than 6,600 people had their electronic devices searched as they crossed U.S. borders between October 2008 and June 2010, according to the ACLU. Some 22 per cent of those people — 1,477 of them — were Canadians, the most of any nationality besides American.
“We’ve received many complaints over the years about people having their electronic devices searched and even seized at the border, and in some cases held onto for a very long time,” Abidor’s lawyer Catherine Crump said in an interview.
“The government asserts that when it comes to electronic devices, people who cross the border have no rights. They argue that they can take your cell phone or laptop and keep them as long as they like.”
Matthew Chandler, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, has said inspections of electronic media are used only “in limited circumstances to ensure that dangerous people and unlawful goods do not enter our country.”
Chandler said the department “has been transparent about these searches,” with the policies and a privacy impact assessment of them available on the department’s website.
But Crump argues that the practice violates the U.S.’s first amendment right to free speech, because laptops “contain so much protected, expressive material,” and also violates the fourth amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.
With the amount of data stored on laptops and other electronic devices, Crump said the practice is a major intrusion.
“You shouldn’t have to risk that the government is going to go through your family photographs and financial information just because you choose to cross the border,” she said.
“They (border guards) have to have some reason to think that a search will turn up evidence of a wrongdoing. It doesn’t mean that they have to have an airtight case, but they do have to have something.”
A federal judge heard arguments in July 2011 by the U.S. government for throwing out the lawsuit.
While Abidor’s lawyers argued the search was unconstitutional, the government said it has the right to search belongings at the border without cause.
The judge has yet to rule on whether he will dismiss the case.