A gay man from the African nation of Sierra Leone is contesting a preliminary U.S. immigration decision to deny his request for political asylum.
Federal officials say the man, 29-year-old Dunrick Sogie-Thomas of Hyattsville, Md., failed to provide sufficient evidence that he would be subjected to arrest, torture and possibly death if forced to return to his home country.
But Sogie-Thomas says he was outed as gay last year in Sierra Leone, prompting members of his family to threaten to have him killed should he return to the capital city of Freetown, where he was born and raised.
The laws of Sierra Leone, a former British colony, classify homosexual acts as a crime punishable by up to life imprisonment.
“Dunrick gravely fears and is at particular risk of being arrested, tortured, detained, imprisoned, or killed by both his family and the authorities,” according to a 12-page brief that his attorney filed earlier this month with the U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services.
In November, the CIS, an arm of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, issued a Notice of Intent to Deny an application for asylum that Sogie-Thomas filed on his own without the help of an attorney.
“In order to receive asylum, an asylum-seeker must show actual past persecution or a well-founded fear of future persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion,” said Asylum Office director Ann M. Palmer in her Nov. 19 Notice of Intent to Deny Sogie-Thomas’s asylum request.
“The persecutor you fear [is] that portion of the general society that is homophobic,” Palmer said in the notice. “You have not shown that such a persecutor is aware of your characteristic,” she said. “You have not shown that the government has an inclination to persecute you.”
Sogie-Thomas has since retained the services of attorney Christopher Nugent of the Washington law firm Holland & Knight, which specializes in immigration and asylum cases. Nugent said the firm was able to take Sogie-Thomas’s case on a pro-bono basis because he is unemployed and could not afford the legal fees associated with an asylum application.
Nugent said that Sogie-Thomas was unfamiliar with the legal precedents and procedural issues that could have helped him make a stronger case for asylum.
Among the points that Nugent stressed in subsequent legal documents filed on Sogie-Thomas’s behalf is that Sogie-Thomas avoided persecution in the past by concealing his sexual orientation from his family, neighbors and co-workers.
But his quiet life in the closet was shattered last summer, Nugent said, when Sierra Leone police raided the apartment of his domestic partner and discovered photographs of Sogie-Thomas and his partner engaging in sex.
Authorities then appeared at the home of his parents and relatives as well as at his place of work, informing his family members and employer and
co-workers that he is gay, Nugent said.
“We’re hopeful that the asylum office will reconsider their decision given the clear risk of harm, including torture, incarceration or death to our client, Dunrick, based on the plethora of additional evidence that’s been submitted,” Nugent said.
“It shows that there’s a clear pattern and practice of persecution of outed homosexuals in Sierra Leone,” he said. “We believe he would even face the prospect of being arrested upon arrival at the airport.”
Visa expires next week
Sogie-Thomas has been living in the U.S. since August on a tourist visa that is scheduled to expire Feb. 27. If the CIS doesn’t act on his asylum application by that time, immigration authorities would likely begin deportation proceedings against him, Nugent said.
Sogie-Thomas could appeal the deportation action, Nugent said, but he was hopeful that the asylum application would be approved soon on the administrative level by the CIS.
In a legal brief filed earlier this month, Nugent says that Sierra Leone police confiscated sexually explicit photos of Sogie-Thomas and his domestic partner during a police raid of the partner’s apartment in August. Police raided the apartment as part of an investigation into allegations that the partner was involved in a cocaine ring. Sogie-Thomas has said he was not aware of his partner’s alleged involvement in drug trafficking until the time of the man’s arrest in July.
Nugent’s brief says that authorities in Sierra Leone visited Sogie-Thomas’s family members, including his mother, at their homes in Freetown to inform them about the discovery of the photos, which show Sogie-Thomas and his partner engaging in sexual acts with each other.
Sogie-Thomas said he and his partner sometimes photographed themselves engaging in sex. He said the photographs were taken and remained in the privacy of their homes. Authorities discovered them on the hard drive of his partner’s computer shortly after the partner was arrested, Sogie-Thomas said.
Nugent’s brief says Sogie-Thomas was in the United States visiting other relatives in Illinois at the time authorities in Sierra Leone informed the family that they had obtained proof through the photographs that Sogie-Thomas is gay.
According to Sogie-Thomas, his mother called him at one of his relatives’ homes in Chicago to inform him the family had “disowned” him.
“She told me that if I ever come back home, they would have me killed,” Sogie-Thomas said.
He said other relatives called him to inform him that police contacted them to inquire about his whereabouts.
“They said the police were looking for me, that they wanted to talk to me,” Sogie-Thomas said.
Nugent said that human rights organizations continue to report cases of “honor killings” in Sierra Leone by people who believe a member of their family has disgraced the family because of certain actions, including the discovery that a relative is gay.
Nugent also says in his brief that Sogie-Thomas and his domestic partner had befriended a lesbian activist in Sierra Leone who was later murdered in an incident that gay rights supporters consider an anti-gay hate crime. He points to press reports in Sierra Leone that a man charged in the lesbian activist’s murder later escaped from a prison and remains at large, a development that has led activists to suspect that law enforcement officials either condoned the killing or were involved in the crime.
Current legal requirements call for a U.S. asylum applicant to prove that he or she has suffered past persecution in a foreign country or that he or she can show that there’s a strong likelihood of suffering from persecution in the country in the future.
U.S. immigration officials traditionally have granted asylum when they were persuaded that an applicant would face persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.
In 1994, under the administration of President Clinton, immigration officials began to recognize persecution based on sexual orientation as grounds for asylum under the “social group” category. Beginning in the Clinton administration, immigration officials also approved asylum applications for transgender and HIV-positive individuals under the “social group” category.
But the New York-based gay advocacy group Immigration Equality has said that cases like Sogie-Thomas’s are difficult to win because the applicants have yet to experience outward persecution, such as an arrest or physical injury or threat.
‘Tantamount to a death sentence’
Chris Ratigan, a spokesperson for the Citizenship and Immigration Services office, said the office never comments on pending asylum cases, which are considered confidential.
“Our asylum officers are highly trained,” she said. “They make decisions on a case-by-case basis.”
Ratigan said the office approves asylum applications in about 33 percent of the cases.
A spokesperson for the Sierra Leone Embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the allegations made in Sogie-Thomas’s asylum application that widespread anti-gay persecution is occurring in the country.
U.S. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) sent a letter to the Citizenship & Immigration Services office in support of Sogie-Thomas’s asylum application.
“I have been informed through many human rights reports and human rights activists of the life-threatening conditions that openly gay people face in Sierra Leone, including risk of abuse and imprisonment and risk of immediate arrest, imprisonment, torture, and death by authorities,” Frank says in his letter. “If Mr. Sogie-Thomas is forced to return to Sierra Leone, he will surely not be able to live as an openly gay man and will face life-threatening conditions from not only the authorities, but also his family.”
In an interview with the Blade, Sogie-Thomas said he and his domestic partner managed to avoid persecution and threats by concealing their sexual orientation since the time they became a couple in 2004.
The two met in London, where both had traveled to visit family members. Sogie-Thomas, who is a native English-speaker, said he studied to become a social worker in London and worked for five years at a London-based, non-profit social services organization that helps abused children.
While living in London, Sogie-Thomas said family members there pressured him into entering into a relationship with an American-born woman who became the mother of his daughter.
“During this time, Dunrick tried to suppress his gay identity, however secretly continued his relationship with his [male partner], even after returning to Sierra Leone in 2006,” says the brief filed on behalf of his asylum application.
Upon his return to Sierra Leone in December 2006, he helped form another non-profit group that provides counseling and social services for troubled and disadvantaged youth, Sogie-Thomas said. He and his partner, a prominent Freetown businessman, continued their hidden relationship as domestic partners until the time of the partner’s arrest on drug-related charges in July 2008.
Sogie-Thomas said he last saw his partner when he visited the man in jail shortly after the arrest.
“He urged me to get out of the country,” said Sogie-Thomas. “He was afraid they would link me to the drug case, even though he said he told everyone I was not involved.”
Telling family members and co-workers that he wanted to visit his daughter, who was then living in Illinois with her mother, Sogie-Thomas made arrangements to travel to the U.S. In August, family members and co-workers in Sierra Leone phoned him in the U.S. to inform him that police were looking for him and had disclosed that he is gay.
“He’s reportedly the talk of Sierra Leone,” Nugent said. “It’s a very small country. Now he’s a well-known gay who is seen as the cause of shame for the family, culture, community and his country. It’s tantamount to a death sentence for him to go back.”