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  2005-02-12 Schumer-Ethiopian's Asylum
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Keeping up with Jewish officeholders

Schumer, citing disparities in U.S. asylum rules,
seeks parole of Ethiopian who deserted Eritrea
,  Feb. 12, 2005

In seeking to prevent an Ethiopian from being sent back to Eritrea where he had been tortured and threatened with death by superiors in his Army unit, Sen, Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said his appeal is bolstered by findings of the United States Commission on International 
Religious Freedom that asylum-seekers are more likely to be turned away by immigration authorities at John F. Kennedy International Airport than any other airport in the country.

Schumer said the disparity is another reason why the United States should give immediate immigration parole to Mussie Tesfamical, who attempted to hang himself after the United States initially rejected his request for asylum, and is now under observation in a hospital.

The senator became involved in the case at the request of Sister Delores Castellano, a nun assigned to the Archdiocese of Rockville Centre, Long Island.

He provided the following summary of Tesfamical's situation:

Mr. Tesfamical was born in Ethiopia but moved with his family to Eritrea in 1993, just as that 
country gained its independence from Ethiopia. When the two nations went to war in 1998, Mr. 
Tesfamical was forced to join the Eritrean Army. While in the Army, he was persecuted and tortured by his superior officers because of his Ethiopian origins. When Mr. Tesfamical assisted another native Ethiopian in reporting her rape, he was punished with severe torture. Eritrean army  officials stripped off his clothes, tied his arms and legs together and forced him to lie on the  ground for three days without shelter from heat and sun during the day or from the cold air at  night. The soldiers also poured milk and sugar on his body to attract insects and flies. After  three days, he was put in an outdoor jail which consisted of a dirt yard surrounded by wire mesh,  thorny vegetation and landmines. Army officials again failed to provide him with any shelter from  the elements. After Mr. Tesfamical suffered in this outdoor jail for a month, they forced him to  return to duty in the army.

Army officials arrested Mr. Tesfamical again two months later because he was listening to a Voice of America radio broadcast in his native language, Amharic. The Eritrean government prohibits listening to such radio broadcasts. The soldiers forced Mr. Tesfamical and five other Ethiopians to strip off their clothes. They tied up their hands and legs and forced the men to lie on the ground for four days. During those four days, they were given no shelter from the elements, were allowed to use the bathroom only twice a day and fed twice a day.

Mr. Tesfamical was then put into a holding cell made out of a metal shipping container. These metal containers grow increasingly hot in the sun and prisoners who are kept in them at times lose  consciousness as a result of the heat. Mr. Tesfamical was kept in the metal container for one  month. He was released only after agreeing to sign a confession stating that he had tried to  recruit other soldiers to participate in political and other anti-governmental activities. He signed the confession in the belief that it was the only way to prevent further time in the metal container. 

Shortly after, Mr. Tesfamical was hospitalized for an infection and returned to his family’s house  to recover at the end of his hospital stay. A friendly soldier came to his family’s house and told  Mr. Tesfamical that Army officials suspected Mr. Tesfamical of being involved in opposition groups and participating in political meetings. He told Mr. Tesfamical that soldiers were on their way to arrest him. Upon learning of his impending arrest, Mr. Tesfamical fled to his aunt’s house. He remained in hiding there until he crossed the border on foot into the Sudan. During this time,  soldiers repeatedly returned to his parents’ house and told them that Mr. Tesfamical was wanted as an enemy agent of the government.

The 2002 US Department of State Report on Human Rights Practices for Eritrea supports Mr.  Tesfamical’s belief that his life is in danger because he is a deserter. It states that the  Eritrean government continues to force men and women into military service and deploys military  police throughout the country to round up deserters and draft evaders. The government authorizes the use of deadly force against those who resist. The report states that police routinely rely on torture techniques described by Mr. Tesfamical: “prolonged sun exposure in temperatures of up to 113 degrees Fahrenheit or the tying up of the hands and feet for extended periods of time.”

Torture like this is not uncommon in Eritrea – the US State Department and numerous human rights groups say the country has one of the world's worst records on human rights, especially toward ethnic Ethiopians. Ethiopia and Eritrea have a long history of bloodshed between them... Mr. Tesfamical eventually arrived at John F. Kennedy International Airport in May 2002 seeking political asylum. 

A federal Immigration Judge issued an order to remove Mr. Tesfamical from the United States in  September 2002 based on a legal reasoning that military deserters are not entitled to recognition  under the US asylum laws. Schumer and Mr. Tesfamical's Catholic Charities immigration attorney strongly dispute this interpretation of the law. Mr. Tesfamical was deported in May of 2003 but was sent back to the United States days later by officials in Turkey, where his flight had a stop-over.

After being told by US Immigration officials that he would again be deported to Eritrea, Mr.  Tesfamical attempted to hang himself while in Immigration custody. In addition to being of Ethiopian origin, Mr. Tesfamical was now a military deserter, which is a grave offense in Eritrea according to the State Department, Amnesty International, and other human rights groups. After his suicide attempt, Mr. Tesfamical was admitted to Holliswood Hospital, a private psychiatric institution in Queens. His case was also taken up by Sister Delores Castellano of Rockville Centre, whose work brought the case to Schumer’s attention.

In October 2003, Schumer was told that he had succeeded in stopping the deportation of Mr.  Tesfamical. But Mr. Tesfamical was not released to live with his family in the United States because officials in Washington at the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement – the successor of the Immigration and Naturalization Service – cited a "zero tolerance" policy against overruling even faulty deportation orders like the one that attempted to send Mr. Tesfamical back to Eritrea.

In late January, 2004, after Schumer and Bishop William F. Murphy, Bishop of Rockville Centre Long Island, personally appealed to the senior government official in this area Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement Michael J. Garcia, Schumer was told that the government had made a decision not to stop Mr. Tesfamical's deportation. With no other option left, in February 2004 Schumer asked the Chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Immigration, Border Security and Citizenship, Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia to open an inquiry into the case. Although Schumer sits on this Subcommittee, only the Chairman can initiate such an inquiry under Senate rules. The Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement shortly after received notice that Mr. Tesfamical's deportation order has been stayed. 

One year later, Mr. Tesfamical is still in US custody, awaiting resolution of his case.

Donald H. Harrison