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British journalist without press visa "treated like criminal" on arrival in Los Angeles

(RSF/IFEX) - RSF has written to United States (US) Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge to complain about the detention of British freelance journalist Elena Lappin on her arrival at Los Angeles international airport on 3 May 2004, and her expulsion the following day for not having a press visa.

"Subjected to a body search, handcuffed and locked up - this journalist was treated like a criminal," RSF Secretary-General Robert Ménard protested in the letter. He pointed out that in 2003, 12 other journalists were arrested, treated in a similar fashion by immigration officials at Los Angeles airport and subsequently expelled, whereas only one such case was reported at any other US airport. "Los Angeles immigration officials should urgently be informed that such methods must stop," Ménard said.

Ménard acknowledged that journalists should comply with procedures established by the law, "but there is no justification for treating journalists like criminals," he insisted. "All these arrests should also serve as an incentive to the US consular services to better inform journalists, as press visas were not required until the Department of Homeland Security was created," Ménard noted.

Lappin, who lives in London, went to Los Angeles to carry out interviews for an article in the British daily "The Guardian". She told RSF she was treated "like a criminal."

After being detained on arrival at Los Angeles airport on the evening of 3 May, Lappin was interrogated "for a long time," she said. She was then subjected to a body search, and her bags were also searched. "I had the impression that there is a policy to intimidate the individual," she stressed. She was taken to a Los Angeles detention centre located about 30 kilometres from the airport. She remained handcuffed during the ride to the detention centre.

"There, [I] was put in a cell with no place to sleep. There was just a small bench about 30 centimetres wide," the journalist said. The next morning, she was taken back to the airport, where she spent the day before being put on a flight in the late afternoon. She arrived back in London shortly before noon on 5 May.

Lappin is a Russian-born writer and journalist. Her articles have been published in Britain ("The Guardian", "The Daily Telegraph", "The Times"), Germany ("Die Zeit", "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung") and the US ("New York Observer", "Granta").

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