Kosal Khiev had envisioned a very different kind of welcome to the UK.
The Phnom Penh-based spoken word artist, chosen to represent Cambodia in Poetry Parnassus, a cultural offshoot of the London Olympics, was detained by immigration officials moments after landing at Heathrow Airport.
After spending nearly 24 uncertain hours at an immigration holding site on the outskirts of London, Kosal was due to be released late last night, his London-based road manager Linda Kwon told the Post.
She added that he will still be able to perform as planned, though she was uncertain if any conditions were attached to his release.
According to a website affiliated with the artist, immigration officials are holding onto his passport for the time being.
Kosal, whose family fled to California as refugees when he was a child, was deported to Cambodia from the US last year after completing a jail sentence for an attempted murder conviction in his adolescence.
Speaking earlier in the day from the Colnbrook Immigration Removal Centre, Kosal told the Post that he was detained for “failing to give satisfactory answers to an immigration officer”.
“I never lied on my visa application,” Kosal said. “I told the truth, even when I came here I told the truth. I have a certificate of sponsorship – why I was here, what I’m doing here, all the contact numbers of the festivals, the organisers, who they can call. If anyone wanted more background, all they had to do was go to my website or the Poetry Parnassus website.”
Kosal’s road manager Kwon arrived at Heathrow on Saturday evening to collect Kosal and accompanying filmmaker Masahiro Sugano, only to learn that the poet had been detained.
“When Masahiro finally came through, nearly two hours after the flight came in, he told me Kosal was being detained for further questioning,” Kwon said. “They had taken his passport and all the documents he had provided, but he wasn’t being told anything either.”
Since his arrival in Cambodia, Kosal has gained acclaim as the Kingdom’s first spoken word poet and was invited in April to represent Cambodia at the London festival, lauded as the world’s largest gathering of international poets and set to take place from June 26 to July 1.
According to Anida Yoeu Ali, co-founder of Studio Revolt, the multimedia collaborative where Kosal is an artist-in-residence, UK immigration authorities claim the visa he was issued by the British Embassy in Phnom Penh may have been issued incorrectly, and that he would likely be detained for at least 36 hours.
Kosal is scheduled to perform at Colnbrook later this week as part of a poetry workshop organised by the English chapter of PEN International, a writing fellowship promoting freedom of expression. After being transferred from Heathrow, Kosal was processed at Colnbrook at 4 in the morning.
He had not slept and was in a state of emotional distress when contacted by the Post at 11am London time.
“I’m being treated as a criminal, when I’ve done nothing wrong, by a country that invited me. I broke down last night, and I was so at a loss for everything,” he said.
“In a lot of ways, I wish I was there now. If I knew this would happen, I would’ve never come. It’s just a process of having to pay for my past and it’s okay, I get that,” said Kosal.
“I just thought me coming here was something that was going to look beyond my past and give me a chance to tell people that at least whatever life throws at you, you can still overcome that. And now, I don’t know if that’s even possible anymore. I feel so helpless right now.”
Attempts to reach Kosal following news of his expected release were unsuccessful.
A spokesman for the British Embassy in Phnom Penh said he could not comment on the status of Kosal’s visa as a matter of policy.
A spokesman from English PEN declined to comment. The UK Border Agency could not be reached.
To contact the reporters on this story: Diana Montaño and Sean Gleeson at [email protected]