Share story

WASHINGTON — For two weeks, Rehan Motiwala, 29, a medical student from Pomona, Calif., sat stranded at the Bangkok airport, sleeping for 10 nights on a roach-infested mattress in a dank, windowless detention room reserved for deportees.

Motiwala, a U.S. citizen, wanted to return to his family in Southern California. But this month, en route from Jakarta, Indonesia, to Los Angeles International Airport, airline staff in Bangkok refused to issue him a boarding pass for his connecting flight. U.S. and Thai officials told him he could not travel but offered no explanation, leading him to believe he had been placed on the U.S. government’s secret no-fly list.

After dozing on benches and wandering the airport terminal for four nights, Motiwala was told a Justice Department official had arrived from the United States to question him.

Mysteries of no-fly list

This week, save 90% on digital access.

When he declined to answer questions without a lawyer present, U.S. officials left him in the custody of Thai authorities, who tossed him into a detention center in the bowels of Suvarnabhumi Airport.

“They treat you like an animal,” Motiwala said in a phone interview.

Motiwala’s travel nightmare ended Friday, when he was finally granted permission to fly out of Bangkok. But his ordeal illustrates the mystery that continues to surround the no-fly list 12 years after its creation. U.S. officials refuse to say who is on the list or why, saying that any explanation could alert potential terrorists about who is being watched.

In 2010, after the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) challenged the no-fly list, the government said it had created a procedure to bring U.S. citizens and permanent residents stuck overseas back to the United States regardless of their no-fly status. The goal was to “quickly resolve the travel issues of U.S. persons located abroad,” a senior FBI official told a federal court at the time.

Cases like Motiwala’s show how the government has failed to carry out that policy, civil-rights groups say.

“The onus is really on the government to facilitate the return of this person,” said Fatima Dadabhoy, an attorney with the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Los Angeles, which is representing Motiwala. “Whether or not they’re on the no-fly list, they can still come home.”

Rare case of detention

The group says it is handling at least two other cases of U.S. people from the L.A. area who have been barred from flying and are marooned abroad.

While travelers can petition to be removed from the no-fly list, civil-liberties advocates say the Department of Homeland Security’s redress process is so opaque that the only way to know if you’ve been cleared is to attempt to fly again.

A federal appeals court in Oregon last week heard arguments in a case brought by the ACLU, whose clients are suing the government to be removed from the list or told why they are on it.

State and Justice Department officials in Washington offered no information about Motiwala’s status. The U.S. Embassy in Bangkok, whose consular officers were in contact with Motiwala during his detention, declined to comment.

A Justice Department official said that about 20,000 people were on the no-fly list as of October, including between 500 and 1,000 U.S. citizens. Experts say cases of travelers being stuck in an airport are rare.

Possible tie to religion

Motiwala, whose parents are of Pakistani origin, was not told why he might be on the list. A likely possibility, however, is his contact with Tablighi Jamaat, a conservative Muslim missionary movement based in South Asia.

He took leave from medical school last year, traveled to Pakistan to visit relatives and went on to Indonesia to work with the group, whose members go around the world proselytizing for Islam.

Tablighi Jamaat is widely regarded as peaceful and apolitical, claiming millions of followers, but U.S. and European law-enforcement officials in the past have raised questions about its connections to radical Islam.

John Walker Lindh, an American who converted to Islam, met Tablighi missionaries in California before joining the Taliban to fight U.S. forces in Afghanistan. British security officials allege that two of the suicide bombers who attacked the London transit system in 2005 had attended a Tablighi Jamaat mosque.

Motiwala first heard of the movement when he arrived last year in Karachi, the Pakistani megacity where his family members live. Inspired by the Tablighis’ devotion, he began attending their meetings, improved his Urdu language skills, grew a beard and shed his Western clothes for a Pakistani shalwar kameez.

“They were very welcoming,” Motiwala said. “We would ask people to come pray at the mosque, talk about the greatness of God, sit in gatherings and listen to prayers.”

Time with missionaries

Motiwala’s parents said he wasn’t particularly religious as a child. Born in Anaheim, Calif., he grew up in West Covina and Pomona with three brothers, including a twin. He attended the University of California, Irvine, graduating magna cum laude in 2007 with a degree in neurobiology, a university spokeswoman said.

He enrolled in medical school at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas, but after two years was beginning to lose interest, he said. He was considering switching to homeopathic medicine and traveled to Pakistan partly to explore continuing his medical studies there.

“I supported him, as long as he did the education,” said his father, Rafiq, a retired accountant. When his son spoke about his growing interest in Islam, he said: “I was happy about it, as long as he goes in the right direction.”

After spending six weeks with missionaries in Indonesia, Motiwala decided to return to the United States in early June, hoping to be home in time for Father’s Day and to resume his university studies. On June 13, he flew from Jakarta to Bangkok. That’s when his troubles began.

Detained for 10 days

When he declined to talk with U.S. officials without a lawyer, they tried to bully him, Motiwala’s lawyers said. The officials told him that returning to the U.S. was a privilege, not a right. One suggested traveling to Afghanistan instead. When they left, the legal attaché reportedly told Thai authorities: “We don’t care what happens. Do whatever you want to him.”

For 10 days, Motiwala was unable to leave the airport detention center because immigration officials said he had exceeded the maximum time allotted to transit passengers.

With no access to his luggage, he wore the same dirty shalwar kameez for two weeks. Bathroom conditions were less than sanitary, he said, so he didn’t shower. Some nights the 15-bed detention room was packed with 40 or more men, some sleeping two to a mattress or crowding together on the floor.

He finally flew out of Bangkok for Los Angeles on Friday morning. His father, who spoke with him by phone before he took off, described him as “extremely relieved.”

But his legal difficulties may not be over. His lawyers believe he may still be on the no-fly list and barred from air travel once he gets home. They said he has not decided whether to pursue legal action against the government.

Custom-curated news highlights, delivered weekday mornings.