WASHINGTON — Six days ago, a Pakistani journalist on the run from Taliban militants landed in the United States holding a valuable key to sanctuary: a visa granting him the right to work for the Voice of America radio service for one year.
But today Rahman Bunairee is in an immigration lockup in Virginia after being detained upon his arrival at Dulles International Airport.
"We are concerned and upset" about the detention, said Joan Mower, a spokeswoman for the VOA, which is funded by the U.S. government. "We are trying to find out what happened and working to get it resolved with other government agencies."
Advocates expressed disbelief at the predicament facing Bunairee, whose reports on Pakistani television and the Voice of America made him a target for the Taliban. Militants blew up his house and threatened him in recent months, according to officials at the government news service and the Committee to Protect Journalists, a press freedom group based in New York.
"His employer arranged to bring him to Washington so that he could continue his journalism in relative safety," said Bob Dietz of the Committee to Protect Journalists, who met with Bunairee in Pakistan in July. "U.S. authorities must explain why they are holding a journalist with a valid U.S. visa and release him immediately."
Privacy laws prevent officials from discussing the case, said Kelly Nantel, a spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. "Due to confidentiality and policies to protect the rights of certain non-citizens and non-nationals of the United States, ICE generally refrains from public comment," she said. "Our obligation to ensure the safety of the individual and the integrity of the process has to come first, before rumor and rhetoric."
The explanation for the detention of the 33-year-old journalist may turn out to be simple. But for the moment it is a mystery, with the extra twist that he came here to work for a U.S. government agency.
Depending on what he told inspectors at the airport, officials may have concluded he was seeking political asylum or was a potential political refugee. In such a case, they would detain the traveler in order to evaluate his potential case for asylum and determine whether he misrepresented his reasons for travel, according to experts on immigration law.
Bunairee's advocates doubt he would have requested asylum. The journalist left his wife and four children behind in Pakistan. He wanted to return home, hoping that after a year the danger would have subsided, Dietz said.
"He gave no indication that he wanted to get out for good, that he was going to try to stay in the U.S.," Dietz said. "He didn't want to separate from his family."
The U.S. embassy in Islamabad granted Bunairee a J-1 visa for him to work in Washington for the Voice of America's Deewa Radio, which broadcasts in the Pashto language to the Pakistani-Afghan border region. He had worked as a stringer for the radio network since 2006, in addition to reporting as a Karachi-based correspondent for Pakistan's Khyber Television.
Bunairee's reporting brought him frequently to his native Buner province in northwest Pakistan, a region that has been the scene of combat during the last year.
Two days after Bunairee appeared on a talk show in July, armed men went to his home in Buner, ordered 11 of his relatives to leave and blew up the house. Bunairee moved his family to Karachi, but the threats and danger persisted. There were incidents in which gunmen climbed the wall of his bureau in Karachi when he was not there, Dietz said.
"I saw him in Islamabad in late July, and he was staying in a guest house and maintaining a very low profile," Dietz said. "You could say he was in hiding. He was trying to figure out what to do."