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Indo-Dutch saga takes racial turn

It is being debated whether the released Indian passengers were victims of racial abuse, or just naive.

india Updated: Aug 25, 2006 15:34 IST
Associated Press
Associated Press

The 12 Indian passengers who were detained after their flight returned to Amsterdam, were released early on Friday, after Dutch prosecutors found no evidence of a terrorist threat.

But then a debate quickly broke out over whether the men, whose behavior raised the pilot's suspicions on Wednesday were victims of racial profiling, or simply naive about security measures after thefoiled bid to blow up US-bound planes.

Dutch prosecution spokesman Ed Hartjes said the decision to return the flight to Amsterdam under F-16 escort was a "correct response under the circumstances," given that the men were exchanging mobile telephones, which were not allowed to be used during flight, and refused requests from the flight crew to sit down and buckle their seat-belts.

Hartjes said a thorough investigation of the equipment the men carried showed that "the phones were not manipulated and no explosives were found on board the plane."

"From the statements of the suspects and the witnesses, no evidence could be brought forward that these men were about to commit an act of violence," he said, adding that the men were cooperative after their arrest and had all given declarations to police.

The suspects were released from custody shortly after midnight Friday, and were escorted away from the airport in vans with tinted windows.

Hartjes said the men were free to leave the Netherlands, but their baggage, which included laptops and hard disk drives, must remain as part of the investigation. He could not comment on where they would stay or when they might leave.

Several relatives of the men in India complained the men were targeted because they were Muslims. Hartjes would not confirm whether all of the men were Muslims. He would also not confirm passenger reports that three U.S. air marshals on the flight had participated in detaining the men.

In Bombay, Lubna Kulsawala said her brother-in-law, Ayub Kulsawala,32, often flew abroad to sell garments. "He flies frequently for trade fairs and business. But he is Muslim so he was arrested. Why should he be detained with no calls allowed to family?" she said.

"My brother is a businessmen traveling with colleagues and friends. Indians talk more loudly than Westerners," said Sanober Chotani, whose brother Shaqeel was among those arrested. "So if you are happy, excited and Muslim and don't converse in English, you are a terrorist?"

Martin Pollner, a former head of law enforcement at the U.S. Treasury Department, who helped develop the Sky Marshals program in the 1970s, said racism accusations were misplaced. "This is not about racial profiling, but a real world, common sense approach," he said.

"On any flight in the world, in my opinion, if you get people ... congregating in a way that raises the eyebrows of the passengers and crew, it can cause this kind of an alarm."

He said that passengers need to consider what kind of behavior, even if it is innocent in nature may "raise the anxiety levels" of fellow passengers and crew.

Hartjes said Dutch prosecutors would be ready if any of the passengers claim their arrest was wrong and try to sue for damages.

He also said it was up to Norwthwest Airlines and the Dutch Defense Ministry to decide whether they would try to recover costs from the suspects for the diverted flight, scrambling the F-16s, and for the 137 passengers who spent Wednesday in local hotels.

Passengers described the arrested men as between 25 and 35 years old and speaking Urdu, the language commonly spoken in Pakistan and by many of India's Muslims. Some had beards, and some wore a shalwar kameez, a long shirt and baggy pants commonly worn by South Asian Muslims. Others wore Western clothes, including baseball caps.

First Published: Aug 25, 2006 15:34 IST