US begins vetting 'suspect' visitors at airports

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The Independent US

Brushing off a storm of criticism, the US immigration authorities yesterday began implementing a policy of registering certain individuals from Middle Eastern and other Muslim countries when they enter the country.

Brushing off a storm of criticism, the US immigration authorities yesterday began implementing a policy of registering certain individuals from Middle Eastern and other Muslim countries when they enter the country.

The measure means that anyone deemed to fit a terrorist profile will be questioned, fingerprinted and photographed at border posts. It is intended to prevent a repeat of security lapses of the kind that allowed the 11 September hijackers to live undetected in the US for so long.

Theoretically, every one of the 35 million foreigners who visit the US in a year could be affected. In practice, however, the policy will focus on citizens of Iran, Libya, Iraq, Syria, and Sudan, who will be routinely registered when they enter the country. Other Middle Eastern and Arab countries will be also be affected.

The Justice Department says that anyone who has paid frequent visits to the Middle East, North Africa, Cuba or North Korea – all considered regions with links to terrorism – is liable to face special questioning if they can not provide a satisfactory explanation for their trips.

The provisions have drawn strong protest in the US from civil liberties groups and Arab-American organisations, which complain that they are discriminatory by singling out people exclusively because of their race or religion.

They have also drawn a blistering attack from the Malaysian Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad, who has been praised by the White House for his help in the war against terrorism. "I am not a thief. I am not a terrorist," Mahathir said sarcastically to reporters in Kuala Lumpur.

The Prime Minister complained of "a general anti-Muslim hysteria" and of how "because of the acts of a few people, the whole Muslim world seems to have been labelled". He added: "It's their country, so I don't know what we can do about it. But of course I am upset."

Last month, his Deputy Prime Minister, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, had a personal taste of tougher US airport security when he was asked to remove his shoes as part of a routine check before boarding a flight from Los Angeles to New York, where he was to address the United Nations.

Abdullah said he complied. But he and other Malaysian ministers believe their country's reputation is being tarnished unfairly, especially since it has arrested 60 terrorist suspects and is working with US investigators.

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