Wednesday, March 27, 2013

A Convention Against Torture Case

The Marianas Office recently won a case for a Burmese national. For purposes of this article I will call her Sharon. 

Sharon was a young woman who had been politically active in Burma, her home country, protesting against the ruling military junta, which has been accused of many humanitarian abuses and violent practices over the years.  Sharon had been a resident of the CNMI in the late 1990's and early 2000's, but then had moved to Japan to work.  In Japan, she edited a political journal in the Burmese language that published counter-regime essays and called for pro-democracy reform in Burma.

Sharon learned that her father was dying, and in early 2009 she left Japan and snuck into Burma.  She convinced some airport officials in Rangoon to not notify the military that she had entered the country. Prior to leaving Japan, she applied for and received a CNMI tourist visa from the CNMI government.  At the time, the CNMI still controlled its immigration.

Once Sharon entered Burma, she was tailed by Burmese military agents who identified themselves to her family and indicated that they wanted to detain her for questioning.  Sharon had several friends and members of her own family who had been killed by the regime and she feared torture or death.

photo by racole of NY

With these threats hanging over her head, she left Burma, and using her tourist visa, entered the CNMI. It was still  early 2009.

Sharon sought MLSC help.  Dimitri Varmazis, as staff attorney in the Marianas Office, prepared an application for Protection from Refoulement, filed with the CNMI. This was the CNMI's version of asylum protection at the time.  However, before the case was definitively adjudicated by CNMI authorities, the transition to federal immigration control occurred (November 28, 2009) and the CNMI lost the ability to decide Sharon's non-refoulement case.

Sharon's status remained in limbo. Dimitri next assisted Sharon to seek humanitarian parole from USCIS.  Unfortunately for Sharon, USCIS denied her parole application and instead forwarded Sharon's name to ICE for processing and initiation of removal proceedings.

Dimitri then undertook to represent her in the removal proceedings.  At the master calendar hearing, the immigration judge found her removable based on presence in the US without admission and inspection by US immigration officials.  Dimitri then helped her file an I-589 application where she indicated that she wished to apply for withholding of removal and withholding of removal under the UN Convention Against Torture, due to her political opinion and membership in the pro-democracy group in Burma. Sharon could not request asylum because the protections of asylum are not available in the CNMI until 2015, pursuant to the Consolidated Natural Resources Act of 2008 that extended US immigration here.

Dimitri prepared Sharon's corroborating documents for the individual merits hearing, scheduled for February 2013.  He secured four witnesses from Japan who agreed to testify that she had worked on a pro-democracy publication with them in Japan that advocated the end of military rule in Burma. 

photo by Jan van Raay

He also compiled documentation on the country conditions in Burma and the Burmese military regime's harsh treatment of political dissidents.  He found a translator on the mainland US who was able to translate excerpts from several of the pro-democracy journals that Sharon had edited.  Those excerpts included articles using incendiary language against the Burmese regime and tables of contents that clearly listed Sharon by name as an editor and financial contributor to the journal.  An immigration judge granted us permission to have the Japanese witnesses testify by telephone, and Dimitri made sure Sharon had a pre-paid phone card at the hearing for the call.

Dimitri had other obligations in February, and handed off the case to another Marianas staff attorney, Linda Wingenbach.  Linda reviewed all the work that Dimitri had done, did her own research to catch up, and met with Sharon to prepare her for the hearing.  At the hearing, Judge Wagner found the client had provided evidence sufficient to show a clear probability that there was a well-founded fear of future persecution if Sharon was removed to Burma.

This is an office victory that could not have happened without the hard work and dedication and coordination by staff in the Marianas.  The standard of proof for withholding of removal is substantially higher than if we had been able to seek asylum for Sharon.

It is not just a legal victory, either.  Sharon feels this relief has saved her life.

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