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CUSTOMS OFFICER DEFENDED

The alleged beating of a Chinese businesswoman on the Rainbow Bridge last week has become an international incident, and now the attorney for the Customs and Border Protection officer arrested in the case is fighting back.

Officer Robert Rhodes, 43, has been accused of using excessive physical force and pepper spray to subdue Zhao Yan, 37, on the night of July 21. The incident left her with both eyes nearly swollen shut.

"Officer Rhodes does not deny that he was in a full-blown fight with this woman," attorney Steven M. Cohen said Thursday. "He used whatever force was reasonable and necessary to counteract what she was doing to him."

Cohen said his client has been with the force for 17 years, has never been arrested and processes between 1,000 and 3,000 people per day.

"She claims that my client left his booth, ran out to where she was innocently taking photos and then violated her civil rights by spraying her with pepper spray," Cohen said. "That has no credibility. What motivation would Officer Rhodes have to leave his booth and pepper-spray or assault an innocent tourist?"

Photos of Zhao, with her eyes badly swollen, have helped turn this into an international incident, even leading to a discussion between Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing.

But Cohen pointed out that the chemical spray would have had that effect on her eyes.

"That's what pepper spray does," he said.

In an affidavit filed in U.S. District Court, Customs officials stated that they saw Rhodes throw Zhao into a wall, grab her by the hair, knee her in the head and strike her head on the ground during the incident.

"What they didn't say is what they didn't see," Cohen said. "They didn't see her fighting with Officer Rhodes, when she was kicking and scratching him."

The incident started when a pedestrian had cleared Customs, only to have an officer discover several pounds of marijuana on him.

Rhodes, as an experienced Customs officer, knows that people involved with drugs often send a "mule" over the bridge and meet that person later, or accompany the "mule."

Cohen said Rhodes saw three women standing nearby and gestured to them to come over. Two of the women ran, but Zhao froze and then started to run, Rhodes told his attorney.

"Officer Rhodes tried to detain her, at which point she began kicking and scratching him," Cohen said. "After getting kicked and scratched a few more times, he did what his protocol requires. He didn't pull out his firearm. He pulled out his pepper spray."

Cohen pointed out that his client also has bruises, on his arms and legs. He also noted that within a day or so of the incident, Zhao had contacted an attorney and was photographed in a wheelchair, with the bruises on her face.

Cohen, with the law firm Lorenzo and Cohen, doesn't consider Zhao an innocent victim.

"The bottom line is she should have cooperated with Officer Rhodes and stopped as soon as he motioned to her," he said.

e-mail: gwarner@buffnews.com

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