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Turban Triggers Secret Service Interrogation

Ralph Ranalli can be reached at

The Boston Globe, Jul. 30, 2004

Photo: Sundeep Sahni.

A Boston College student leader who wears a turban and full beard in accord with his Sikh religion says he was detained and interrogated for seven hours Saturday night by Secret Service agents for doing nothing more than taking photographs of the campus.

Sundeep Sahni, a senior with a double major in computer science and finance, said the Secret Service agents, who were staying on campus during the Democratic National Convention [D.N.C.], suggested that he was a criminal, searched him and his car for weapons and bombs, and even had him sign a release form during the ordeal that gave them access to his psychiatric records.

Sahni, 21, said he believes he was singled out because of his appearance. At one point during the searches, he said, an agent told him: 'I don't want you pulling an Uzi from your turban.'

'It was the most humiliating experience of my life,' Sahni said.

Boston College officials said they are giving Sahni their full support and are attempting to arrange a meeting between the student and the Secret Service.

'We want to arrange a conversation, which we hope will result in an apology,' said Boston College spokesman Jack Dunn.

A Secret Service spokesman, however, said there will be no such meeting or apology.

'During the course of the D.N.C., law enforcement is in a heightened state of awareness in response to suspicious activity,' Secret Service spokesman Charles Bopp said. 'He [Sahni] was interviewed, and our security concerns were addressed. The case is closed. There are no charges; there is no further investigation.'

Bopp declined to address any of Sahni's specific allegations yesterday, except to say that Secret Service records show that the incident lasted five hours, rather than seven. He declined even to confirm that Secret Service agents were staying on the Boston College campus.

College officials, however, did confirm the agents' presence on the campus and said that they questioned Sahni and his friends out of concern that photographs were being taken of the buildings where the agents were housed.

A leader in four different campus organizations, Sahni said that Saturday night began uneventfully, when he and fellow Boston College student Ali Shawaf hosted a mutual friend and former exchange student, Siddharth Khotkar, for a visit.

Khotkar wanted to take some pictures of his former campus, but the three were soon stopped by college police, who said someone had reported them as suspicious after they attempted to take pictures of St. Mary's Chapel.

Growing up as a foreigner in autocratic Kuwait and living in the United States following the Sep. 11 terrorist attacks, Sahni said he is used to being stopped at airports and occasionally by police because of his appearance.

The three friends expected to be sent on their way after having their I.D.s checked, but Secret Service agents arrived and took over the questioning, Sahni and Shawaf said. The interviews, conducted first outside and then at the Boston College police station, lasted until after 1:30 a.m. B.C. police were not involved in the questioning, Dunn said.

At one point, Shawaf said, an agent asked him whether he knew that his friend Sahni had an 'obsession' with Social Security numbers and that he had a criminal record. Sahni, however, said that he has never been arrested and that the agent might have been referring to a time recently when he left his Social Security card on a university-owned scanner, after scanning it into his computer as a backup in case it was lost.

Both Sahni and Shawaf said it is clear to them that Sahni was singled out because of his appearance.

For one thing, they said, only Sahni, whose family is originally from India, was searched and questioned while Shawaf, a Muslim from Saudi Arabia who dresses and wears his hair in Western style, was not. And if the pictures were the issue, they said, why would the agents focus on Sahni when the camera belonged to his friend Khotkar, an Australian of Indian Hindu descent?

Sarah Wunsch, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union [A.C.L.U.] of Massachusetts, said yesterday that she believes that the Secret Service did not have legal grounds to interrogate Sahni and that he has a valid civil rights claim.

'The D.N.C. being here does not mean that they [the Secret Service] can do anything they want,' she said.

Sahni, meanwhile, said that he would resist his impulse to leave school and return to Kuwait, because he owes it to other Sikhs to stay and push for at least an apology.

'B.C. teaches people how to be leaders, and I have told people in the past that they should stand up for their rights,' he said. 'It's my turn to try to make sure this is never going to happen again.'