WASHINGTON -- The State Department improperly seized the passports of at least 31 U.S. citizens trying to obtain vital records and other paperwork from the U.S. Embassy in Yemen, according to an inspector general's report released Friday.
The passports were taken between December 2012 and June 2013, just as Yemen's fragile political system began descending into chaos. Consular officials claimed they confiscated the passports of citizens after finding that their printed names were false or fraudulent.
In many cases, the citizens had gone to the embassy to obtain U.S. passports or birth records for children born in Yemen. Many had been living in the United States but, after their passports were seized, were stuck indefinitely in Yemen amid a widening civil war.
Yemen is now in the midst of the world's worst humanitarian disaster, with millions on the brink of starvation.
Investigators said they were able to confirm only 31 cases of inappropriate seizures because of poor record keeping by the State Department, but immigration advocates say the actual number is in the hundreds.
In some cases, the citizens were eventually given temporary passports, valid only for a return to the United States, but then were unable to travel again.
Naz Ahmad, a lawyer at a legal project at the City University of New York School of Law who represented some of those affected, said the investigation proved that "innocent Americans were stranded overseas in a war zone."
"Driven by apparent prejudice toward our Muslim, Arab clients, State Department officials grossly abused their authority," she said.
The U.S. Embassy in Sanaa was closed in 2015 as Yemen's civil war intensified. In a 2015 explanation for the seizures, the State Department said that it "revokes U.S. passports for reasons set forth in federal law and in federal regulations."
But the department's inspector general concluded that the revocations and seizures in Yemen did not follow proper procedure, and that consular officials routinely ignored citizens who asked what had happened to their passports.
In one case, the embassy took a citizen's passport on Jan. 21, 2013. The person contacted consular officials repeatedly over the following months but was ignored, according to the inspector general's report.
Almost two years later, the department sent a written notice to the person to advise that the passport had been revoked. But even then, the department failed to provide the required documentation or reasons for the revocation, the report found.
The State Department told investigators that its difficulties in Sanaa arose both because document fraud was common in Yemen and because the country's deteriorating security situation weighed heavily on daily embassy functions. Investigators found that the department had yet to clarify the process by which passports can be confiscated or revoked.
A Section on 11/04/2018
Print Headline: Report: U.S. Embassy in Yemen seized passports of 31 citizens