Wednesday, October 27, 2021

After being barred from competing, a Pakistani athlete appeals for help

It was the umpteenth opportunity for Pakistani Paralympian Marium Syed Ali to participate in the Asian Para Games. Sitting volleyball is a relatively unknown sport in Pakistan and Ms. Ali took the opportunity to compete. But this time, she was detained at the airport and her team stopped from competing. Ms. Ali pleaded with the authorities to allow the team to compete. But instead of politely explaining their rationale, customs officials made no attempt to walk back their statements.

They accused the team of being illegal immigrants. Ms. Ali was branded an illegal Indian citizen, banned from leaving the country, and accused of being in Pakistan illegally. When she could not produce valid entry documents, she was thrown into jail and held until a Wednesday hearing on the visa issue.

When I spoke to her on Friday, she recounted the surreal moment:

I thought the court date for my visa was the only thing going to happen during the week. But suddenly I was taken into custody. At this point, I had no clue about what was going on.

I was handcuffed, taken to a police station, taken to a magistrate, and a DPO [provincial superintendent of police] came into the room and seemed concerned. An officer in plain clothes demanded to know about the visa issue. But when the DPO and I went in front of the judge, I realized this was not about a visa: they said we were no longer welcome to enter the country. I was sobbing, but knew this was the end of my opportunity to compete in the games.

On Thursday, I was on my way to the airport to try to get my passport back when two members of the special immigration department stopped me. They tried to escort me, but I started screaming. The second I screamed I was arrested. As they took me to a jail cell in Taxila, I was more upset. I could have sued for damages and paid a fine, but I wanted to do it the honorable way: by asking for help and seeking their approval. The paperwork from the court, they could not refuse.

I kept repeating, “There is no basis to this accusation.” But it was too late. After filing a complaint with the Islamabad High Court, I went to court the next day, and it exonerated me.

This experience is still haunting me. That time, immigration officials thought I was giving them a scoop about their “number one suspect.” I am a warm and caring person, but my phone battery charges instantly, I save money, and I can actually read the schedule in Punjabi, Hindi, Sindhi, Urdu, English, or all of them. I am a good swimmer, but I did not use it to cheat. For Pakistan, I am probably the country’s only proven paralympian. And all these officials saw me and still declared me an illegal Indian. If they could watch me compete, they would be surprised.

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