Sheikh Taj al-Din al-Hilali, 62, was returning from a conference in New Zealand accompanied by other religious leaders from the region when he was “singled out” at Sydney’s international airport for what he called a humiliating search.

 

Al-Hilali, an Egyptian-born immigrant, has since complained to Prime Minister John Howard about the incident which occurred on June 21. 

 

Al-Hilali’s spokesman Kayser Trad said the Mufti had cleared customs when, waiting at the baggage carousel with a travelling companion, he was taken by a customs official to have his bags comprehensively searched.

  

"They searched the bags thoroughly, bits of paper, everything, and was asked some very probing questions which did not really have any relation to the search," Trad said.

  

The spokesman said it was strange that he would be asked such probing questions after such a conference. “They asked him about the conference itself, who attended it, when the next one will be, and who will be attending that -- I mean what relevance is that?” he asked.

 

Manner of search

 

If they had a security concern these are the types of questions the security personnel would ask, not customs officers, Trad said.

 

There was a feeling of victimisation as a result of the search, the spokesman added.

 

He made it clear that the Mufti did not object to being searched, but the manner in which this particular search was conducted, and the probing questions, left him with a feeling of discrimination and victimisation.

  

Trad said al-Hilali made no official complaint to customs, but wrote to Howard asking for clarification as to whether the officer was acting under direction.

 

Reacting to the incident, Customs Minister Chris Ellison said the search was done in a professional manner and without prejudice.

  

"We don't discriminate against anyone on the basis of race," Ellison told reporters in Sydney. "We do our searches on the basis of risk assessments and we are professional people who carry that out," he added.