WASHINGTON — U.S. immigration officials questioned a Voice of America journalist Tuesday to determine whether he could apply for asylum based on a "credible fear" of being tortured or persecuted in his native Pakistan.
Immigration officials detained Rahman Bunairee on Aug. 9 after he arrived at Washington Dulles International Airport on a visa issued by the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad. He'd planned to work in a yearlong exchange program for the U.S. government-funded VOA, officials with the agency said.
Immigration officials have refused to comment on why they're holding Bunairee in a Virginia detention center, citing privacy laws.
After speaking with Bunairee earlier this week, his lawyer Paul Virtue said it appeared that officers had concluded "he was coming in not to take part in the exchange program, but to seek protection from harm in his country."
Early last month, Bunairee's house in a northern Pakistani village was blown up. According to journalists working in the region, Taliban militants were behind the attack.
Immigration officers determined that Bunairee couldn't remain in the United States legally on his visa because they thought that he intended to stay, according to Virtue, former general counsel for the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
They questioned Bunairee on Tuesday for about 20 minutes to determine whether he has the required "credible fear" of returning, VOA officials said. If he does, it's likely that he'll be released in the U.S. and allowed to apply for asylum.
Bunairee, who turned 34 while he's been in immigration custody, has worked for Voice of America in Pakistan since 2006.
"We were extremely concerned and upset about this," said Joan Mower, a spokeswoman for the agency.
Journalists working in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province said militants had targeted Bunairee's house in a village in northern Buner in July, along with the family house of another reporter, Behroz Khan, who works for the Pakistani Geo News channel.
Bunairee's family was "driven out in the middle of the night," Khan said. "The house has been completely destroyed."
He said that they'd both received threats previously from the Taliban because of their reporting.
Khan added that the government had taken no action since the attacks on their houses. The area remains under Taliban control, despite claims by the authorities to have cleared Buner of militants, he said. A visit to Buner by McClatchy last month found that Taliban were still present.
Delawar Jan, a reporter who covers the Buner area for The News, a Pakistani daily newspaper, said that Bunairee had done a story on Voice of America before the attack reporting that the Taliban were still in Buner, which angered the extremists. In a report for Khyber TV, Bunairee's other employer, he was critical of the Taliban when the militants first marched into Buner in early April.
Bunairee's reports are in Pashto, the local language, which the Taliban speak.
"He is very well known here," Jan said.
(Shah, a McClatchy special correspondent, reported from Islamabad, Pakistan.)
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