Friday, April 28, 2006


By William Fisher

In the unlikely event that our senators and congresspersons come together to pass an immigration bill sometime in this century, it is virtually certain to overlook a heartbreakingly simple humanitarian issue: battered women seeking asylum.

This is far from a new issue. It has been kicking around for years - and it has been kicked around for years.

Kicked from the old Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) to the U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services (BCIS) within the wildly dysfunctional Department of Homeland Security. And to compound this bureaucratic nightmare, BCIS now shares jurisdiction with the Justice Department (DOJ) for preparation of new guidelines that would cover this category of asylum seeker.

Rewind to 1995, when the INS actually produced some acceptable guidelines concerning women's issues. There was only one problem: the INS failed to follow its own guidelines.

That little lapse resulted in the bizarre case of Rodi Alvarado, a Guatemalan woman who was subjected to extreme domestic violence by her husband, who broke her jaw, kicked her when she was pregnant, wielded a machete and threatened that if she tried to escape he would leave her wheelchair bound for the rest of her life.

In 1995, Mrs. Alvarado did escape -- to the United States, which granted her asylum. But this decision was immediately appealed by the INS and overturned by the Justice Department's Board of Immigration Appeals in 1999.

The Board claimed she was not seeking asylum due to membership in a social group, political opinion, race, religion or nationality. They claimed she needed to show a nexus between the beatings and her political opinion or membership in a social group.

She was allowed to remain in the U.S. pending an appeal of the appeal. And she's still here, living in California and working in a convent.

Near the end of the Clinton Administration, Attorney General Janet Reno proposed regulations to expand the ability of victims of domestic violence (and other gender-related human rights abuses like trafficking, sexual slavery and honor killing) to seek asylum in the United States.

But those regulations were never implemented. And when John Ashcroft became attorney general, he failed to recommend that the regulations be adopted. Instead, he re-certified Ms. Alvarado's case to himself in order to review it, since the Attorney General has authority to make decisions on any immigration case.

But Ashcroft left office in 2004 without making a decision. He said the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security should agree on a set of guidelines covering women's issues, including domestic violence.

Since then, both agencies continue to claim they are working on these guidelines. Despite the fact that proposed regulations were drawn up back in December 2000, nothing has been finalized in more than five years.

According to Rodi Alvarado's lawyer, Karen Musalo of the University of California's Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco, "The complication, as we understand it, is that now both DHS and DOJ have jurisdiction over the regulations because of the reorganization of the INS, and there has not been consensus between the two agencies on how to proceed."

One has to wonder about how hard these two taxpayer-funded behemoths are working to solve the problem.

Meantime, Mrs. Alvarado - and others in her predicament - remains in legal limbo.

The current immigration debate has rekindled interest in cases like that of Mrs. Alvarado. But a coalition of refugee and human rights groups is taking a new approach: it is urging congress to examine the "root causes" of population movements.

Responding to the claim by some congresspersons that easing asylum restrictions would "open the floodgates" to still more undocumented aliens, a report by one of the members of the coalition, The Center for Gender and Refugee Studies at the University of California at Hastings, argues that "the solution is not to deny protection, but to look at the root causes of refugee flows, and to craft foreign policy responses to address them."

And it is taking its case not to immigration agencies but to a few key members of congress who, they hope, will help them to take their message to the State Department.

The reason they want State involved is that there is credible evidence that domestic violence is part of a larger and even more deadly phenomenon: Femicide. And the State Department is a major funder of programs to strengthen the judiciary and other rule of law institutions in Guatemala and elsewhere around the world.

For example, in Mrs. Alvarado's country, Guatemala, the coalition says "there is violence and murder of women with total impunity - with more than 2,200 women
killed since 2100, and perhaps 10 or 11 prosecutions and convictions. Local media has largely ignored the issue.

Femicide is also a problem elsewhere in Latin America. Earlier this year, Bolivia, Peru, Colombia, Mexico and Guatemala sent a delegation of activists to the
Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in Washington to focus attention on Femicide.

Incomplete murder rates presented to the Commission cite 373 known murders of women in Bolivia from 2003 to 2004, 143 in Peru during 2003, and more than 2,000 in Guatemala. In Colombia, a woman is reportedly killed every six days by her partner or ex-partner. Ciudad Juarez and Chihuahua City, Mexico, two cities where the Femicide trend was first widely noticed, have suffered the murder of more than 500 women from multiple causes since 1993, according to press and other sources. Dozens more remain missing.

Globally, the problem is no less severe. In many parts of South Asia and the Middle East, for example, so-called "honor killings" usually go unpunished.

Leading the Femicide campaign are four non-governmental organizations -- the Washington Office on Latin America, Amnesty International USA, the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies, and the Guatemalan Human Rights Commission.

Three members of congress - California Democrats Barbara Lee, Tom Lantos, and Hilda Solis - are drafting a letter to the State Department, which they hope will be signed by most of their colleagues, regardless of party. The letter will urge State to provide funding and personnel to examine the Femicide issue as well as the murder of human rights activists.

It would be tough to think of two issues less controversial than Femicide and asylum for battered women. They are not immigration issues - they are issues of compassion, justice and basic fairness. Congressmen like James Sensenbrenner and Tom Tancredo ought to be able to sign on in a heartbeat.

But, given the incredible rancor generated by the immigration issue, I'm not holding my breath.


By William Fisher

In 2002, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld famously referred to Guantanamo prisoners as “the worst of the worst”.

As recently as June 2005, he said, despite massive and incontrovertible evidence to the contrary, "If you think of the people down there, these are people, all of whom were captured on a battlefield. They're terrorists, trainers, bomb makers, recruiters, financiers, [Osama bin Laden's] bodyguards, would-be suicide bombers, probably the 20th 9/11 hijacker."

And Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, chimed in, “They were so vicious, if given the chance they would gnaw through the hydraulic lines of a C-17 while they were being flown to Cuba.”

"These are the people that don't know any moral values," he said, adding that
” the threat they pose is real -- at least 12 former detainees have been killed or captured on the battlefield after their release.”

If that be true, how do we explain why, of the approximately 760 prisoners brought to Guantanamo since 2002, the military has previously released 180 and transferred 76 to the custody of other countries.

Or why it is now proposing to release 141 more prisoners -- about a third of those still left at GITMO? Have they been rehabilitated?

No, the Pentagon says they no longer have any further intelligence value.

So they were “the worst of the worst”, but they have now told us everything we wanted to know, so we are letting them go, presumably to terrorize us another day?

Or is it that the military doesn’t have enough on these people to try them, even before its own tribunals, which have a much lower threshold of evidence than our courts?

Or is it that it we are planning to turn some of these released prisoners over to law enforcement authorities in their home countries? A kind of slightly more transparent rendition.

Or is it that the military simply can’t abide the idea of admitting that it, too, makes mistakes?

There may be some truth in all of the above. Yet, the Bush Administration seems hell-bent on continuing to shoot itself in the foot by clinging to the fading perception of its own hundred per cent righteousness.

Many of the Pentagon’s “mistakes” have been held for close to five years, without charges and without trials. Some were not captured on the battlefields of Afghanistan, but kidnapped off the streets of Europe and various locations in the Middle East. Many were “sold” to U.S. authorities in Afghanistan and Pakistan for bounties. It is clear that many others were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

In a brilliant piece of investigative journalism, the fiercely nonpartisan National Journal magazine reported, “Notwithstanding Rumsfeld's description, the majority of (Guantanamo prisoners) was not caught by American soldiers on the battlefield. They came into American custody from third parties, mostly from Pakistan, some after targeted raids there, most after a dragnet for Arabs after 9/11.”

Nevertheless, all were categorized as “enemy combatants” with ties to the Taliban, Al Qaeda, or other groups that support terrorism. The Pentagon undoubtedly has evidence that some of the prisoners at Guantanamo were Al-Qaeda operatives out to kill as many Americans as possible. But in many other cases, the “evidence” is based on second, third and fourth-hand hearsay. In still others, it is clear that admissions of guilt have been obtained through cruel and inhumane interrogations that many say amount to torture.

Examples of Pentagon mistakes are not difficult to find. For example:

There is a man named Saddiq who has been behind razor wire for more than four years. In a rare display of candor, the military acknowledged last year
that he was not an enemy combatant. But he remains imprisoned. His lawyer says his opposition to Osama bin Laden makes him too hot to handle in his native Saudi Arabia.

Then there are the Chinese Uighur Muslims who had fled persecution in China, some of who are still being held at Guantanamo, officially because they would not be safe if returned to their native country.

Then there are the “Bosnian Six” -- six Algerians seized in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 2002 and flown to Guantanamo after the Bosnian Supreme Court dismissed charges against them of plotting to blow up the U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo.

Said one of them: "I've been here for three years and these accusations were just told to me…Nobody or any interrogator ever mentioned any of these accusations you are talking about now. Not even one mentioned the embassy thing, the terrorist organization, the Algerian Islamic organization. It's weird how this just came up now."

Then there are at least three children, ages 13 to 15.

Then there is the Casio watch caper reported by the fiercely nonpartisan National Journal. According to the Defense Department’s own files, a watch worn by one prisoner was similar to another Casio model that has a circuit board that Al Qaeda used for making bombs. The United States is using the Qaeda-favored Casio wristwatch as evidence against at least nine detainees. But the offending model is sold in sidewalk stands around the world. And the detainee’s Casio model hasn't been manufactured for years.

Then there is Murat Kurnaz, a Turk the government plucked off a bus in Pakistan and subsequently accused of being friends with a suicide bomber. The government did not tell Kurnaz's tribunal that his friend is alive and therefore could not be the referenced suicide bomber. In January 2005, a federal judge singled out Kurnaz's case as evidence of the lack of due process in the Guantanamo tribunals. The judge said that his tribunal had ignored exculpatory evidence and relied instead on a single anonymous memo that was not credible.

Then there are the British men who were detained for nearly three years and who have sued the U.S. government, alleging torture and other human rights violations. In a 115-page dossier, the men allege that they were beaten, stripped, shackled and deprived of sleep during their detention. They charge that guards threw prisoners’ Korans into toilets and attempted to force them to give up their religious faith. There say detainees were forcibly injected with unidentified drugs and intimidated with military dogs. And they claim they were subjected to abuse and beatings during their detention.

Each said they eventually gave false confessions that they appeared in a video with al Qaida chief Osama bin Laden and Mohammed Atta, one of the September 11 hijackers, despite the fact that they could prove they were in Britain when the video was made.

After they were freed last March, the men were questioned by British police but quickly released without charge.

These are just a few of the Pentagon’s mistakes – much of the evidence coming from the Defense Department’s own files.

Not even the CIA bought into Rumsfeld’s “worst of the worst” riff. Michael Scheuer, who headed the agency's bin Laden unit through 1999 and resigned in 2004, said, ”By the fall of 2002, it was common knowledge around CIA circles that fewer than 10 percent of Guantanamo's prisoners were high-value terrorist operatives…Most of the men were probably foot soldiers at best” who were "going to know absolutely nothing about terrorism."

Presumably, these are the 141 prisoners now being released.

Those who remain will be judged through a legal process that most lawyers familiar with military prosecutions say ignores the due process protections found in, say, garden-variety courts martial.

But, if past is prologue, the Pentagon – and the President – will continue to defend the indefensible.