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August 10, 2008

Asylum seeker hopes, hides in L.A.

Los Angeles Times | Anna Gorman

The prison guards called it "morning coffee."

Every day he was behind bars, the Cameroonian political activist said, guards in his west African country tied his hands and feet and whipped his soles until they bled. He said they burned cigarettes on his skin and beat him with electric cords.

The activist, who wanted only his initials, T.S., used for fear of retaliation against relatives in Cameroon, fled the country in 2006. He made his way to Los Angeles, where he petitioned for asylum.

But nearly two years later, he is still waiting for his case to be heard by an immigration judge. Every day that passes, T.S., 40, fears for the safety of his wife and 9-year-old son, who are in hiding back home. He cannot begin the difficult and dangerous process of bringing them here until he is granted asylum.

"I thought I would be given asylum and that the United States would protect me," he said through a French interpreter. "I feel like my bad luck is actually continuing. It has actually followed me from Cameroon to here."

For asylum seekers like T.S., long waits can be devastating. Relatives of asylum seekers have been arrested, imprisoned and murdered in Cameroon, experts and lawyers said.

"All of these delays are life and death for their children," said Judy London, an attorney for the pro bono public interest law firm Public Counsel. "With all asylum cases, we have the fear of retribution back home. It is actually happening with the Cameroonian cases."

 

Influx of asylum seekers

Public Counsel, based in Los Angeles, has seen a recent influx of Cameroonian asylum seekers, with a caseload of about 25 in the last few years - more than from any other country. Some are opposition party members or supporters, others are part of a group trying to secede from the country, and still others have had no political involvement. They have fled by obtaining tourist visas, using false documents or sneaking across the border.

Cameroon is a country slightly larger than California on Africa's Atlantic coast. It has long had a poor human rights record, including harsh, even life-threatening prison conditions; restrictions on citizens' freedoms of speech and unlawful killings by security forces, according to a 2007 U.S. State Department report.

"You may see people one day and not see them the next," said Debora Johnson-Ross, a professor at Maryland's McDaniel College who has done extensive research in Cameroon. "People are disappeared; people's homes are raided. People are detained."

Even though the country has more than one political party, President Paul Biya has been in power since 1982.

Opposition party members and supporters are regularly abused by the police and military, and the state mechanism for repression is well-developed, said UC Berkeley political science professor Leonardo Arriola.

He said Cameroonians are frequently punished for the actions of their relatives.

"It's one of several means to compel people to be silent or to cooperate with the government," he said.

In one case, a Cameroonian living in Los Angeles, who agreed to give only her nickname, Pierette, because of the risk to her family, fled the country last year and was recently granted asylum, pending a background check. Pierette, an opposition politician, said she was arrested, beaten and raped repeatedly.

"I had to leave the country," she said. "I didn't know what was going to happen to me tomorrow."

Soon after, her teenage daughter was killed in Cameroon in what Pierette believes was retaliation for her political activism. Pierette said she was anxious for her other five children to get out of the country. But she worries that their lives would be at risk if they apply for passports.

"No Cameroonian has his proper rights... . I am afraid that one day my country will end up like Rwanda and Ivory Coast," said Pierette, referring to those African nations' recent history of brutal campaigns of violence.

"This is how it starts."

 

Price of politics

T.S. said he became involved in politics when he was in his early 20s. He helped organize a student parliament and staged hunger strikes and protests for educational equality.

He said he was imprisoned without food or light for days after he was caught selling fundraising cards that said "Biya Must Go."

"Back then, I wasn't really thinking about the risks, especially because politics was in my blood," he said. "I had to do something."

After a fellow organizer was burned to death, T.S. left the university but stayed involved in politics by joining a group in opposition to Biya's government. In 1996, T.S. said he was again arrested, detained and beaten. After being released, he went into hiding and married in a secret ceremony. His wife gave birth to his son in 1999. She became pregnant again but was raped by government forces and lost the baby, he said.

T.S.' longest period of detention, nearly a year, came after a student protest in 2001. He escaped after a relative with political connections paid a bribe. He said his father was also arrested a number of times and in 2005 was beaten to death. Missionaries twice helped T.S. try to escape. After the attempts failed, a relative paid a smuggler to obtain a visa. Because T.S.' photograph was posted at police stations and borders, he wore a disguise and hid in the bathroom until boarding. On the plane, T.S. said he thought: "At last. I'm saved."

In Los Angeles, he was denied asylum at the interview with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and referred to immigration court, where he has appeared twice.

London, the Public Counsel attorney, said his request for asylum was initially rejected because of questions about the documents he used to flee. T.S. had a final hearing scheduled for March, but the judge was transferred and the case reassigned. Now, he is not scheduled to tell his story in court until March 2009.

A professor submitted an affidavit to the court saying that if T.S. were to return to Cameroon, "he would most likely face more repression, risk being redetained, jailed, further tortured and possibly killed for his political beliefs."

T.S. lives with a friend and is studying English on his own. He relies on donations for food and transportation to meetings with his attorney and therapist. He hasn't heard from his family in months.

"It is too hard," he said. "I need to have my wife and kid close to me."

 

A reasonable fear

Under U.S. law, foreigners are eligible for asylum if applicants show a reasonable fear of persecution in their home countries because of their political opinion, national origin, race, religion or membership in a social group.

If an asylum officer doesn't approve the case within weeks, the applicant must appear before an immigration judge.

The process can take years, delayed by background checks, judge transfers, large caseloads or postponements by attorneys.

In fiscal year 2007, immigration services approved 270 Cameroonian cases nationwide and referred 262 to court, according to the agency. During the same period, immigration judges granted 203 Cameroonian cases for asylum and denied 135.

"Every case deserves to be heard thoroughly," said former Los Angeles immigration judge Bruce Einhorn, "but some cases deserve to be heard more quickly because of the danger to life and liberty that would be increased by any delay."

 anna.gorman@latimes.com