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,
(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
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
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.