(New York, NY) – The news that Austrian scholar and expert on Kurdish affairs Thomas Schmidinger was subject to extensive questioning about his work and political views before being denied boarding for a flight to the U.S. raises questions about whether the United States, perhaps in coordination with other governments, is unlawfully employing ideological criteria to restrict entry into the country. Schmidinger, who states that he had a valid visa, has expressed concern that Turkish officials, may have requested that the U.S. deny him entry.

Schmidinger, a political scientist and cultural anthropologist based at the University of Vienna, is a well-regarded specialist on the Kurds and serves as the secretary-general of the Austrian Society for the Promotion of Kurdology. He had been invited to the United States by his U.S. publisher for a series of events at universities and book stores to promote his book, The Battle for the Mountain of the Kurds: Self-Determination and Ethnic Cleansing in the Afrin Region of Rojava. Schmidinger, who has lived and worked as a visiting research fellow in the United States previously, currently holds a 10-year multiple entry visa for the U.S.

He was denied boarding to a U.S.-bound flight from Amsterdam to Minneapolis on September 12, after being questioned extensively by airline personnel about his research and travel in Iraq, Syria, and Iran. According to Schmidinger, U.S. embassy officials in Austria later assured him that his visa was valid and that he was not subject to any type of travel ban.

“The Department of Homeland Security needs to explain immediately why Thomas Schmidinger was blocked from travelling to the U.S.” said Karin Deutsch Karlekar, director of Free Expression at Risk Programs at PEN America. “Preventing Professor Schmidinger from traveling and speaking about his recent academic work denies Americans the opportunity to hear, engage with, and learn from him. If confirmed, the allegation that he was denied entry because of the subject of his research – perhaps unpalatable to the Turkish government – would be a violation of the basic principles of free expression and open discourse protected by the First Amendment. We urge authorities to allow Professor Schmidinger to be allowed to travel to the U.S. without delay.”

PEN America has long fought against ideological exclusions as a violation of free expression and an impediment to open discourse across borders, and also maintains a longstanding policy of opposition to cultural and academic boycotts as infringing upon “the universally guaranteed right of all to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers [which] includes the right to engage in direct, face-to-face discussions, debates, challenges, and collaborations.”

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