What was meant to be a weekend getaway for three IIT students turned into an international nightmare when the Italian police detained the trio for 10 hours.
“After a day full of atrocities, we were in a state of mental trauma. All the other people held were Pakistanis and Africans, and so it clearly seemed to us an act of racial profiling,” said Akshit Goyal, a second year computer science student at the Indian Institute of Technology - Delhi (IIT-D).
Goyal, with his friends Deepak Bhatt from IIT-D and Uday Kusupati from IIT-Bombay, is on a two-month internship in France at the Inria Sophia Antipolis, a European research body.
Three days ago, the friends decided to spend the weekend in Italy and were travelling between Venice and Antibes when the police detained them illegally for 10 hours with no reason.
The incident came to light on May 30, 10 hours after the students were pulled aside at the Ventimiglia railway station in Italy.
“There were around 20-25 police officers who were checking passports, so we readily showed our passports and were let off. But immediately another police officer sought our passports and asked us to stay back with a group of 10 people,” said Goyal.
Despite reiterating to the officers that they had all the necessary documents, the students were taken to another room where they were asked to submit all their belongings and were not allowed to use their mobile phones.
“We had a medical checkup done. Our finger prints and photographs were taken and despite repeated requests to put us through someone who can speak in English, we were only told ‘no problem’, while things just got worse,” he said.
Authorities remained uncommunicative, and the three were suddenly packed onto a bus and driven to Genoa city, three hours away. To their surprise, they were taken directly to the airport and after thorough physical frisking put on a plane to Bari, a fact the students found out only afterwards.
Once in Bari, while the other passengers were being questioned for lack of documents, the students got a chance to get in touch with their families back in India.
“We found out that the police was planning to keep us in camp for the night, so we immediately contacted Akshit’s sister and asked her to contact the Indian Embassy in Italy about this incident,” said Kusupati.
In an hour, police officials returned the passports, apologised for the ‘mistake’ and allowed them to continue their trip.
Though unwilling to term the incident as racist, Goyal said it was “an attack on a person’s dignity and blatant disrespect towards self-identity”.
After being picked up at the Ventimiglia railway station at 8:30 am on May 30, they returned to Rome at 7 am on May 31 using their own money.
The students have since written about their ordeal to the Indian Embassy in Italy.
Though they have not yet decided about pressing charges against the Italian police, they have decided to start an online campaign and reach out to authorities through their letter.
“While this experience has left me petrified, I still believe I was really lucky to have a family at ease with usage of internet and quick in response to connect with the right authorities, including the Indian Embassy, our professors and friends, etc. What concerns me is that many students studying in premier institutes come from rural backgrounds and limited resources. What happens to them in such cases?” said one of the students.
Though they were not treated harshly and given food and water regularly, the possibility of being convicted in a foreign land without family or friends around had terrified them.
“While I’m sure this was not intentional, we can’t ignore the fact that the police were wrong on their part as well. We just don’t want anyone else to go through the same ordeal,” said Kusupati.
The trio is back in France and plan on continuing to travel through Europe.