NEW ORLEANS — The U.S. Border Patrol, responding to criticism about the way it handled the case, said Wednesday that a Soviet sailor who jumped ship here was immediately asked if he wished to defect, and that returning him to the freighter--even against his wishes--was standard procedure.
At the same time, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which oversees the Border Patrol, said it will investigate the incident to determine whether the officers involved were diligent enough in ascertaining exactly what the sailor wanted to do before ordering his return to the freighter.
The seaman's leap into the Mississippi River Thursday night, and the subsequent series of events, had threatened to cast a pall on the summit meeting three weeks from now between President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev. That was averted Tuesday when the sailor, Miroslav Medvid, told U.S. officials that he wished to return to the Marshal Koniev, a grain freighter.
However, some questions remained, including why Medvid jumped in the first place. The State Department refused to comment on the subject Wednesday.
"I don't have any response for you," State Department spokesman Joe Reap said. "I understand your question. You have my answer."
Duke Austin, a spokesman for the INS, said he also did not know why Medvid jumped ship and then later threw himself from a launch that was returning him to the Marshal Koniev.
"Everyone is asking me why he jumped ship, and I don't know why he jumped," Austin said. "There's a zillion things that could have made him do it. Maybe he saw a good-looking Louisiana Cajun on the beach."
The head of the New Orleans Border Patrol office, Chief Jessee Tabor, said he was angered by what he said were untrue reports about how his men had handled the case.
"At the onset, we were being accused of returning this individual without interviewing him in his native language," but, he added, the Border Patrol used an interpreter to interview the seaman in his native language.
Tabor took issue also with reports that the Border Patrol was bringing Medvid back to the ship when Medvid again jumped into the river.
"It was not the a border patrolman who physically dragged him back aboard his vessel. No rational officer would do this," he said.
Tabor said that Medvid had been turned over to the company representing the freighter in the port and that its employees were operating the launch the sailor jumped from.
The chain of events that nearly ended in an international incident began last Thursday, when Medvid went over the side. He was picked up by the New Orleans police, turned over to the Harbor Patrol and then the Border Patrol.
'Not Asking for Asylum'
The Border Patrol officers determined that Medvid was Ukrainian, called an interpreter and asked if the sailor wanted to defect, INS spokesman Austin said.
"He said he was not asking for asylum but that he did not want to return to the ship," Austin said. He said standard procedure in such cases is to turn the sailor over to the ship's agent, but he said his agency's investigation will center on whether the patrolmen expended enough effort to determine exactly what Medvid wanted to do.
"We're not absolutely convinced they exhausted what his intentions were," Austin said.
Although the State Department was critical of its not being informed of the incident until hours after Medvid was returned to his ship, Tabor said his office records about 200 ship jumpings a year and that all are handled in similar fashion if asylum is not requested.
Austin said much the same thing.
"The fact that you've jumped ship doesn't mean you want to defect," he said. "There's no motive for them (the border patrolmen) to take him back if he really wanted to stay. Our only question is did they go far enough to determine his true intentions. That is what we are going to be looking at."
The incident finally ended when Medvid was taken off the ship for extensive discussions with American officials. In the end, the sailor signed a statement that he wished to return to the Soviet Union.
Rep. John B. Breaux (D-La.) was highly critical of how the Border Patrol handled the Medvid affair. He said he provided the name of a Ukrainian interpreter in New Orleans who was not used.
"He (Medvid) probably figured he was better off on the ship after the kind of treatment he received," he said. "To defend the Border Patrol some, you don't get a Russian defector in the Port of New Orleans every day. But they should have contacted the State Department in Washington."