An American peace activist and co-founder of the group CODEPINK was planning to go to Gaza as part of a delegation on women. However, she flew to Cairo. She was detained in the airport, held for hours and then, before Egyptian security officers tried to deport her, she was roughed up and had her arm broken.
The United States State Department had a duty to this person, Medea Benjamin. Perhaps, their most important job is to protect the safety and security of American citizens in other countries.
What did the State Department do for her and did they fail her?
The incident occurred on the night of March 3. As Benjamin described to Firedoglake, she arrived in the airport and was traveling alone. She expected all would go as planned because “for several months” she had been “working with the Egyptians” to setup the trip and ensure they had the information they needed to allow people in her delegation to enter and travel to Gaza. She shared information with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on “who was in the delegation and what their profiles were and their passport information.” The “embassies in every country where the women were coming from” were informed as well.
Much to Benjamin’s surprise, authorities in the airport took her passport. She was put in a separate room so they could “check” her papers. Then, five hours later, she was brought before an individual she says was part of Egyptian security and “was very nasty and threatening and yelling.”
This man would not tell her what she had done wrong or why she would not be allowed into Egypt. He abruptly halted the conversation and said take her away. “Begin legal proceedings.” She did not know what this meant and he refused to explain what it meant to her because he knew she would not like it.
Benjamin said she suggested that someone contact the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This was all worked out and, if this happened, clarifying a miscommunication could take place. The security officer refused and insisted on beginning legal proceedings. She was taken to a cell and left there with other women for the rest of the night.
When it came time early in the morning to be deported, five plainclothes security officers came in with handcuffs and told her to come with them. She tried to remain in the cell to wait for someone from the US Embassy to come visit her. She did not want to go with the intimidating officers and the women in her cell generally advised her not to go with them.
She was grabbed, thrown to the ground, handcuffed and her scarf was stuffed into her mouth. She was pulled violently until her shoulder popped out of its socket. They brought her to the tarmac. She was being deported to Turkey and the Turkish Airline would not take her in terrible plain.
An ambulance came and two young female doctors gave her a shot of painkillers. Benjamin recalled that the doctors wanted her to go to the hospital. Egyptian security would not let her leave the airport so she was put on the plane in pain. The officers who brutalized her sat on her left and right side.
Benjamin added that on her trip the stewardesses “took pity” and asked if a doctor was on the plane. It turned out an orthopedic surgeon was on the flight. The surgeon treated her on the floor of the plane and pulled her arm out and put it back into its socket. She then was given more painkillers.
In Turkey, she went to the hospital and received treatment before returning to the United States. The State Department was also much better because someone from the US embassy did show up.
Up until March 7, the State Department refused to comment because they argued they could not talk publicly about Benjamin’s arrest until she submitted and signed a Privacy Act waiver. This may have been a convenient way to avoid speaking about it, however, the Associated Press’ Matthew Lee persistently worked to get the State Department to go on record and explain why it looked like the Department had not done all it could do for a citizen when she had been in need.
So, finally, spokesperson Jen Psaki explained what happened on “that fateful day” during a Friday press briefing:
MS. PSAKI: … We can confirm that Medea Benjamin was – so because she signed a Privacy Act waiver, we can confirm that she was detained by Egyptian immigration authorities upon her arrival in Cairo on March 3rd, 2014. Egyptian authorities reported to the US Embassy in Cairo that they were holding a U.S. citizen around 3:00 a.m. local time on March 4th. A consular officer attempted to contact Ms. Benjamin directly multiple times. The consular officer was unable to make contact with her prior to her deportation at 11:53 a.m. that same day, but was able to talk to immigration officials and several of her friends as well as inform U.S. consular staff in Turkey. While in Turkey – because she was put on a plane back to Turkey – on March 4th, Ms. Benjamin was contacted by phone by a consular officer at 8:30 p.m. local time to check on her welfare and to arrange a visit the following morning. The US Embassy in Ankara also requested that the Turkish authorities grant Ms. Benjamin humanitarian parole to allow her to seek appropriate medical care for the injuries she sustained in Egypt. She was transported to a local hospital, where she received a medical examination and treatment for a dislocated shoulder. A consular officer then visited with Ms. Benjamin at the airport the next morning at 10 a.m. She was given a Privacy Act waiver to sign, but she deferred, as we all know, stating that she wished to consult with her legal team first…
This was the State Department’s explanation on a consular officer’s attempt to meet with her:
MS. PSAKI: …Unfortunately, they were unable to connect. However, the consular officer was able to connect with her friends, as you know. It’s not standard practice – and I just learned this too – for a consular officer to visit a U.S. citizen who was not given permission to enter a country. However, we – because we couldn’t reach her – I mean, it was – and we had reached through Egyptian authorities. There wasn’t a way to make contact about the next steps in the process.
QUESTION: I’m sorry, who was not given permission to enter the country?
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: You’re saying that she did not have an Egyptian visa?
MS. PSAKI: She did have a visa, but a visa doesn’t give you –
QUESTION: Oh, oh, oh. I see what you’re saying.
MS. PSAKI: — permission to enter a country.
QUESTION: So if you’re stuck in limbo, kind of, if you’ve been detained at the airport, that doesn’t – that’s not the same as –
MS. PSAKI: Well, it allows you to travel to a port of entry, like an airport.
QUESTION: Right, but that’s not the same in consular terms as someone being arrested for, I don’t know, hitting some – theft, and going to an actual jail. Is that what you’re saying?
MS. PSAKI: Right. The – well, or going –
QUESTION: So if you’re –
MS. PSAKI: — or exiting the port of entry. Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: If you’re in immigration limbo –
MS. PSAKI: Yep.
QUESTION: — you – consular access isn’t required?
MS. PSAKI: Yes.
QUESTION: I mean, the host country doesn’t have to provide.
MS. PSAKI: And consular – yes. Consular access also requires cooperation, and, of course, permission from the local authorities. So permission to visit her was not granted in time to perform a welfare and whereabouts visit before she was deported.
AP reporter Matthew Lee managed to get the State Department to admit that they had publicly stated false information about her being in contact with a consular officer. The agency maintained it had tried to provide “all appropriate assistance” in Cairo. But, as Benjamin declared, “When I needed them was in the 17 hours when I was being held in Egypt and they knew where I was. They knew what was happening and they never showed up.”
Stunningly, even with all the attention and the time spent preparing an official comment, the spokesperson could not say whether the US embassy in Cairo had communicated anything to the Egyptian authorities “about any perceived unnecessarily rough handling of Ms. Benjamin.”
Peter Van Buren, a former State Department employee whose past duties involved work assisting US citizens when they were in need of consular assistance, suggested since Benjamin had been active on Twitter during her detention it was “disingenuous at best to claim that a consular officer did everything” to contact her.
He gave credit to the AP reporter for keeping the story alive and added it was “incumbent on the part of the US government to protest.” Benjamin boarded a plane in Cairo with injuries that happened in Egypt. She was treated in Istanbul and did not fake her injuries. There should have been a public statement condemning the authorities for injuring her when she was detained.
“State’s performance here is pathetic. They tried to dodge the topic, got caught fibbing and then failed to protect the rights of an American Citizen. Medea’s Egyptian story is over, and luckily she is safe,” Van Buren concluded.
Had it been a person who was not traveling to show solidarity with the women of Gaza and did not have a history of publicly demonstrating against US government officials at speaking engagements, would the State Department have been a better advocate for her when she was in need?
Her past history of activism shouldn’t matter. Every citizen’s life should be valuable to the State Department.
Like Van Buren said, “You protest such cases not just for Medea but to protect the next American.”