USA: Court Rejects Decisions of Immigration Board
In a scathing opinion, a federal appeals court in Manhattan ruled on Wednesday that immigration judges and the appellate system established as a check on their decisions committed “obvious errors” by denying asylum to three Guinean women who claimed that they were victims of genital cutting back in Africa.
The three women — Salimatou Bah, Mariama Diallo and Haby Diallo — had all appealed their asylum cases from lower courts to the Board of Immigration Appeals last year. While they had told the board that they feared for their own safety (and, in two of the women’s cases, for that of their daughters) if they were sent back to Guinea, the board, in separate decisions, ruled that because their genitals had already been cut, they had nothing more to worry about.
In a unanimous decision, a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit overturned the board’s rulings and ordered it to hear the cases again. One judge, Chester J. Straub, wrote that he was “deeply disturbed” that the women’s cases “did not receive the type of careful analysis they were due.” In a concurring opinion, Judge Straub, called genital cutting “a horrendous act of persecution” that had “serious life consequences,” adding that the Board of Immigration Appeals had “simply failed.”
Lawyers for the women did not return calls seeking comment. But Ana Reyes, a lawyer for the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies at Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco, who filed a supporting brief on behalf on the women, hailed the decision.
“Today’s ruling is a tremendous victory for women who seek our nation’s protection to escape the brutal practice of female genital mutilation and the other forms of gender persecution that are associated with it,” Ms. Reyes said in a statement.
Charles Miller, a spokesman for the Department of Justice in Washington, which oversees the Board of Immigration Appeals, said that the government was reviewing the court’s decision and its own options. The three women remain in the United States pending resolution of their cases.
The practice of genital cutting, a tradition throughout sub-Saharan Africa, has long been criticized by human rights groups and the United Nations and frequently takes place under unsanitary conditions, with tools like knives, scissors, razor blades and shards of glass, the ruling said.
The judges’ opinion put a distinctly human face on the matter. It quoted Ms. Bah, for instance, as saying that when she was 11, her mother and aunt took her from her home to “a small area fenced with wood and stuffed with coconut trees” where five “old ladies” with knives and other simple tools undressed her and made her lie down on the ground. Ms. Bah said she not only bled profusely after the procedure, but also suffered later troubles with menstruation, sexual intercourse and childbirth. Mariama Diallo and Haby Diallo both said they were mutilated at age 8, according to the ruling.
In tossing out the board’s decision, the appeals court said genital cutting was not necessarily a “one-time act” of persecution, citing the case of a woman from Sierra Leone whose vagina was sewn shut with a thorn and then cut open each time her husband wished to have sex.
Nor is cutting the only type of persecution that the women might fear, the court said. Judge Straub quoted a State Department report that said women in Guinea often endured domestic violence and rape and offered a political analogy: Just because a dissident has his tongue cut out for speaking out, it does not mean that his life or freedom cannot be threatened in other ways.
In previous cases, the board has said that women subject to forced sterilization are routinely granted asylum though that procedure, like genital cutting, ostensibly cannot be repeated. The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in California, has weighed in on similar cases, ruling in 2005 that genital cutting “permanently disfigures a woman, causes long-term health problems and deprives her of a normal and fulfilling sexual life.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: June 14, 2008
An article on Thursday about a decision overturning rulings that denied asylum to three Guinean women who said they were victims of genital cutting misidentified the judge who wrote the opinion for the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. It was Judge Chester J. Straub — not Judge Rosemary S. Pooler — who wrote that the court was “deeply disturbed” that the women’s cases “did not receive the type of careful analysis they were due,” and who quoted from a State Department report that said women in Guinea often endured domestic violence and rape. And it was Judge Straub who used a political analogy to dismiss the argument that genital cutting was a “one-time act” of persecution. (Judge Straub also submitted his own concurring opinion.)
SOURCE: The New York Times
AUTHOR: Alan Feuer
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