Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Woman allegedly mocked during airport strip search

By Sheena Goodyear, QMI Agency

Shileen Flynn, 29, had already missed one flight and lost her luggage when she says she found herself in a room at the Vancouver airport, naked and squatting, while two crude border agents strip-searched her.

It was December, 2009, days after a suspected al-Qaida member tried to ignite an explosive device aboard a Detroit-bound flight. Flynn had just returned home to Vancouver from a trip to Seattle, and was on her way to Palma de Mallorca, Spain, to start a new job as a public relations officer.

She was a day behind schedule, having missed her flight from the U.S. the night before, and had to catch the next plane to Germany so she could then catch a flight to Spain and start work the next morning. Somewhere along the way, the airline lost her luggage.

She was talking to her mom on a pay phone when a Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) officer approached her.

“All of a sudden, the guy comes over to me and says, 'Can I talk to you?' I said, 'Of course, why not?'” said Flynn.

She said he asked her where she was travelling and why she was using a pay phone. He told her to take off her sunglasses so he could see her eyes. She slipped them off, looked at the officer, and then pushed them back down.

His tone became aggressive, she said.

“He said, 'No take your sunglasses off!'” said Flynn.

As he searched her carry-on bag and asked more questions, a bystander offered her a card for a lawyer, but the officer sent him away, Flynn alleges.

More officers arrived with a police dog who walked up to Flynn, sniffed her, walked away, came back over to her again, hesitated a moment, then left.

Then they brought her to a room with two female CBSA officers for a strip search.

Flynn — a frequent traveller who has been strip-searched twice before — said this time was different. She said the women made her bend over a table, open her legs, and squat and cough. They asked her personal questions, like when she last had sex, Flynn said.

She fought back tears throughout the ordeal.

“I thought, if I start crying, they're gonna think I'm guilty,” she said.

“As soon as they finished the strip search, I started bawling.”

One guard told her if she didn't stop crying, she'd be detained, Flynn said. When she explained why she was crying, Flynn said a guard piped up: “How do you think I feel? I just had lunch. You make me feel sick.”

“It's the most embarrassing thing that's ever happened to me in my life,” said Flynn, who cried the whole way to Frankfurt. “It was totally demeaning and degrading. ... I've done nothing wrong. Absolutely nothing wrong.”

As soon as she got to Spain, she called her father, Charlie Flynn, who reported what happened to CBSA.

CBSA launched an internal investigation, interviewing Shileen and the officers involved.

After months of back and forth, Charlie received a letter from CBSA that read: “We have fully investigated the incident and concluded that the BSOs involved in examination of your daughter followed established guidelines and conducted themselves in a professional manner.”

“They keep saying that I'm lying,” said Shileen.

With no mention of the alleged verbal harassment by the border service officers, the letter explained that a strip search can be conducted if an officer “has reasonable grounds to suspect that a person has secreted contraband on or about their body,” as long as a senior officer approves the search, and the suspect is informed of their rights.

“It was sickening to watch and see what they were doing. They then went into full cover-up in the investigation and simply lied when convenient to cover up any wrongdoing,” Charlie told QMI Agency.

On May 18, the CBSA told Charlie there would be a new investigation and that someone would call to answer his questions about their detaining polices. As of Monday morning, he hasn't heard back from anyone.

Mark Holland, federal Liberal critic for public safety and national security, has been helping the Flynns with their case.

While he declined to comment specifically on what happened to Shileen Flynn, he said the case highlights the need for greater transparency and independence in CBSA's complaints process.

“It's like a black hole that people fall through all the time,” Holland told QMI Agency.

CBSA employees investigate complaints, and report to the agency's president, said Holland.

Holland said the government should overhaul the complaints system and appoint an independent officer to investigate cases like Flynn's.

The results of those investigations should be made public, and the officer should be given power to implement mandatory policy changes, he said.

Currently, the CBSA's admissibility branch, which operates independently from the rest of the agency, handles complaints.

If a person isn't satisfied with the branch's conclusions, they can appeal the decision to the Canadian International Trade Tribunal.

QMI Agency placed multiple calls and e-mails to CBSA Friday and Monday seeking information about their complaints process and comment regarding Flynn's allegations, but as of Monday afternoon, has not heard back.

Charlie, meanwhile, is considering pursuing criminal charges or perhaps filing a lawsuit.

Shileen just wants to protect others from experiencing what she experienced.

“All I want from this is that it never happens to anyone else,” she said.


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