By James Burrell
Time is running out for an HIV-positive gay man who's been denied refugee status. Joaquín Ramirez is scheduled for deportation to El Salvador — where he says he'll face torture and death — on Thu, May 15.
Ramirez, who came to Toronto as a delegate for the International AIDS Conference in August 2006, says he's afraid that if he's sent back he'll face violence at the hands of three federal police officers who he claims beat, raped and robbed him in a sugarcane field more than two years ago. Since the alleged attack Ramirez says the three men have visited his family in El Salvador threatening to kill him because, they claim, he infected at least one of them.
"I am sure that I will be put through torture," says Ramirez through an interpreter, "and I am sure that I will be assassinated if I go back. There have been four men who have come to my sister's home in a car and have parked outside her house. They have asked my little niece if I had come back yet and they have also called my sister and told her that they were going to kill me.
"Even my sister, whom I have been getting support from, now has said that if I go back she regrets that she wouldn't be able to help me," says Ramirez. "She is afraid for herself."
Ramirez's application for refugee status was denied in May 2007. In his decision Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada adjudicator Chimbo Mutuma stated he didn't believe Ramirez left El Salvador because of the alleged attack since he had already planned to attend the AIDS conference several months before it took place. Mutuma also asked why Ramirez did not go to police to report the alleged crime.
"I have always told them that I didn't go to report it to the police because in El Salvador you cannot do it," says 39-year-old Ramirez. "I couldn't go to the police to report the police. I have submitted reports of gay people who have been assassinated there. They have been killed in very barbaric ways such as stones being thrown at them. And I believe that would have happened to me."
Ramirez, who volunteered as a safer-sex outreach worker and AIDS educator in his native country, says he was approached by three officers on Jan 13, 2006 in a restaurant in Aguilares. He says he was driven to a sugarcane field, where the officers allegedly beat him and forced him to have sex with them. He says he told them he was HIV-positive and asked them to use the condoms he had with him, but that they accused him of lying to try to stop them from having sex with them.
"When the story broke most of my family said they would have rather I died... than bring shame upon the family as I had done," says Ramirez, tears welling up in his eyes. "Now they say that everyone knows that I am not only gay but also HIV-positive and that it has brought shame to them."
"I think that he's someone who fell through the cracks of the system," says Ramirez's lawyer Leigh Salsberg. A Toronto-based lawyer who specializes in immigration and refugee protection, Salsberg says her client has several judicial reviews of the decision in motion.
"They've rejected his individual story as not credible, the events he says happened to him," says Salsberg, "but they've known all along that he is gay and has HIV. In my view no one has fully assessed the risk of him just being a gay man in El Salvador where the conditions — just that in and of itself — are dangerous. They're supposed to look at the conditions in that country."
Salsberg says one of the judicial reviews argues Ramirez would not be able to continue his course of HIV meds if he's returned to El Salvador.
"Our evidence says that if he returns back there will be an interruption in treatment and that is obviously very dangerous for someone with HIV," she says.
Since coming to Canada Ramirez has volunteered with the Toronto People with AIDS Foundation, the queer Latio group Hola and the Centre for Spanish Speaking People.
"He has a lot of support and has brought in so many letters of support from people that he's worked with, from community organizations both here and in El Salvador," says Salsberg. "It's all really well-documented, and I think it adds so much credibility to his case, to have that many people rallying around him."
But Ramirez says he isn't holding out much hope. "I always had a conviction that Canada would give me protection but now I think that's not the case. I've already fought a lot to be heard and now I'm disappointed. I'm very sad because every day that goes by is one day less I have. I don't know what to do anymore. I have done everything I could to try and make people believe that I deserve to be here, but I have no more strength left."
Thank you to Samuel E Lopez for providing translation services