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Customs Officer's Beating Trial Begins

Robert Rhodes says he was following policy when he detained a Chinese tourist. He is accused of using excessive force.

August 20, 2005|From Associated Press

BUFFALO, N.Y. — A veteran Customs and Border Protection officer charged with beating a Chinese tourist said Friday that he had acted "by the book" during a struggle in which the woman was pepper-sprayed, thrown against a wall and had her head forced to the pavement.

Robert Rhodes spoke briefly before the start of his trial in U.S. District Court, where he was accused of using excessive force against the visitor he had mistaken for a drug suspect.

"When I stopped her, she fought. I followed CBP procedure by the book," Rhodes said as he arrived at the courthouse.

The 17-year border inspector is charged with depriving Zhao Yan of the constitutional protection against unreasonable force by a law enforcement officer. He could face 10 years in prison if convicted.

Zhao, 38, who owns a furniture company in Tianjin, is suing the U.S. government for $10 million over the July 2004 incident that has drawn intense interest in China.

Rhodes' attorney, Steven Cohen, has accused the U.S. government of bowing to pressure from the Chinese and alleges that Rhodes was singled out because he is gay.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Martin Littlefield has denied that either political pressure or Rhodes' homosexuality played a role in the indictment.

During his opening statement, Littlefield told jurors that within seconds of running up to Zhao, Rhodes emptied a can of pepper spray in her face and threw her against a wall, causing her to fall to her knees, her hands clamped to her burning eyes.

When other officers couldn't pry Zhao's hands from her face to handcuff her, Rhodes kneed her three times in the head, grabbed her hair and pounded her head into the cement, Littlefield said.

Cohen painted a different picture, saying Zhao -- who Rhodes believed had been traveling with a man who had just been caught with marijuana -- had clawed and kicked at Rhodes, leaving scratches and bruises.

"Terrorists come in all sizes, shapes and colors," Cohen said.

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