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African envoys wrongly detained at airport, blame ‘racial profiling’

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Published : 2014-05-11 20:25
Updated : 2014-05-11 20:25

Resident ambassadors from Nigeria and Kenya were signaled out of a line in a baggage area by customs officials and detained in what one of the envoys described as “racial profiling” at Incheon International Airport on Wednesday.

Nigerian Ambassador Desmond Akawor and Kenyan Ambassador Ngovi Kitau were detained for 30 minutes in front of other passengers by customs officials “without giving any reason,” the two envoys said.

“When I reached customs, they told me to move to an area for a private screening. I asked them why, but they said to just go,” said Kitau about the incident.

“For five minutes I just stood there (in an area in front of other passengers). I did not know what was going on. Surprisingly, (Nigerian Ambassador Akawor) was brought to the same place. That is when I realized that this is racial profiling,” said Kitau.

The envoys arrived at Incheon International Airport from Doha by way of Qatar Airlines at 4:30 p.m. on Wednesday. Kitau passed through immigration approximately 10 minutes before Akawor, received his luggage and proceeded to exit through customs. He was then taken out of the line, his diplomatic passport taken from him, and asked to step to one side.

“I asked them, ‘I want to know why we were signaled out. Was it because we were black, just because we were black?’ We are diplomats. So, why are we signaled out and embarrassed in this way?” said Ambassador Akawor.

Nigerian Ambassador Akawor, who began his posting here in May 2008, is the dean of the group of African envoys here. He said on Friday he was sending an official letter of complaint to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“If we were signaled out in this way, who knows how many times this has happened to other people from Kenya and Nigeria,” Kitau said. “It is racism.”

Foreign diplomats are protected from being detained, arrested or prosecuted by local authorities under international law. The idea of diplomatic immunity goes back hundreds of years, and was most recently codified in the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. South Korea, along with more than 160 other countries, is party to the international treaty.

Despite that, however, many foreign envoys here have described situations in which they were inappropriately detained or subjected to searches by law enforcement and security officials in violation of international norms and diplomatic protections.

A similar incident occurred in Seoul during a ceremony commemorating the March 1 Movement when a male security official attempted to frisk Belarusian Ambassador Natallia Zhylevich, who has said that the government has not yet apologized for the violation of international norms and practices.

Kitau and Akawor said Wednesday’s incident at the airport was discussed at the monthly meeting of African ambassadors which this month took place at the residence of Angolan Ambassador to South Korea Albino Malungo on Thursday.

By Philip Iglauer (ephilip2014@heraldcorp.com)

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