Time to end diplomatic immunity

by Jim Longworth

Last week, United Airlines Flight 633 from Washington DC to Denver was disrupted and terrorized, not by an al-Qaida operative, but by a snotty-nosed diplomat from the obscure country of Qatar. Mohammad Al Madadi decided to smoke a cigarette in the plane’s lavatory. Then, when confronted by a Sky Marshall, said he was trying to light his shoes on fire (a reference to the infamous shoe bomber). The pilot alerted authorities, and within minutes, two F-16 fighter jets were scrambled to intercept the plane. Despite his illegal and threatening act, Madadi was released without being charged. But how could this be?

Remember Haisong Jiang who, back in January, ran past airport security ropes to kiss his girlfriend goodbye? That innocent stunt caused 200 flights to be delayed. Jiang now faces a $500 fine, and 100 hours of community service. That same month, Muhammad Tahir was drunk and unruly on a commercial flight, and he’s looking at a fine of $250,000. So why did authorities in Denver just let Madadi walk away? Because unlike Tahir and Jiang, Madadi enjoys full diplomatic immunity.

It is a recurring problem to which US officials have continued to turn a blind eye. Ever since the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations codified the practice and terms of immunity back in 1961, foreign nationals have been taking advantage of what was meant to be a professional courtesy extended among civilized countries. In fact, the Vienna Convention was clear on law breakers when it stated, “[I]t is the duty of all persons enjoy ing

such… immunities to respect the laws of the receiving state….” But as Joshua Muravchik of the American Enterprise Institute once warned, “Immunity invites abuses.” And those abuses have manifested themselves in many forms over the past two decades, ranging from unpaid parking tickets to abduction.

According to New Republic columnist Michael Crowley, foreign diplomats in New York City alone racked up over $18 million in unpaid parking tickets between 1997 and 2002. Diplomats also get tax-exempt real estate for their official businesses, but many abuse their status by using their property to turn a profit. Diplomats from the Philippines, for example, ran a bank, a restaurant and an airline office from their tax-free complex in New York. The Big Apple once took Turkey to court to collect $70 million in back taxes owed by its diplomats, but ended up settling for $5 million. Meanwhile, diplomats from Zaire once failed to pay their landlord $400,000 in rent. When the landlord sued, our own State Department defended the Zairens because they were protected by diplomatic immunity.

But abuses by foreign diplomats include far more serious matters than unpaid tickets, rent and taxes. In one case, a deputy ambassador from the republic of Georgia was driving drunk when he injured four people and killed a young girl. He was never charged. Meanwhile, the American Anti-Slavery Group claims that diplomatic immunity is becoming a cover for slave trade. And the DEA has tried to prosecute diplomats who smuggle drugs into America, but have been largely unsuccessful because diplomatic pouches (in which drugs can be transported) are protected from inspection. And then there’s the famous case in which a New York policeman apprehended a diplomat from Ghana who had just raped two women. Although the women identified him and were ready to testify, the rapist was released after being detained for a mere 45 minutes. According to the New York Times, the rapist laughed and bragged to the cop and the rape victims, “I told you I had diplomatic immunity.”

Men like the Ghana rapist and Madadi the shoe burner are still laughing at us. Currently there are more than 100,000 foreign diplomats and their dependents residing in the United States, and none of our elected officials appear to be the least bit concerned about the threat these lawbreakers pose to our citizens and property. Some people say the system works because diplomats who act badly are usually sent packing to their home country. But those criminals are just replaced with more criminals, and justice is never served. Others suggest the solution is to cut off all foreign aid to any country whose diplomat has committed a crime. But, again, that only closes the barn door after the horses are loose.

That’s why President Obama should suspend diplomatic immunity immediately. Sure that would leave American officials at the mercy of their host nation, but if they’re deviant enough to break the law, then they should pay the consequences.

Meanwhile, here at home, we’ll all feel just a little bit safer knowing that foreign diplomats can no longer hide behind their flag when disrespecting ours.

Jim Longworth is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Fridays at 6:30 a.m. on ABC 45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 10 p.m. on WMYV (cable channel 15).