Columbia Law School’s Sexuality and Gender Law Clinic has won asylum in the United States for Ahmed A., a gay man who feared persecution because of his sexual orientation if he had been forced to return to his native Mauritania.
The grant of asylum, issued by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, highlights the perils for gay people who live in the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, a country in West Africa. In Mauritania, homosexuality is punishable by death—both by the government and by the powerful tribal communities that regulate Mauritanian society.
Mauritania is one of five countries in the world—along with Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Yemen—that impose the death penalty for being gay. In addition, 76 countries prosecuted people based on their sexual orientation as of last year, underscoring the global reach of the practice of state persecution of gay people.
“For nearly 40 years, our client, Ahmed, never felt free,” explains Jane Kim ’11, a clinic student who worked on the case. “His entire life, he changed his behavior to avoid suspicions, beatings, and death by his father, his tribe, and by the Mauritanian government for being gay, for being himself. He lived a private life, trusting very few.”Last year, Ahmed fled for the United States, terrified for his life. He was referred to Columbia’s Sexuality and Gender Law Clinic by Immigration Equality, a national organization focused on immigration rights for GLBT and HIV-positive individuals.
Seven clinic students—Kim ’11, Elyce Matthews ’11, Jeffrey Yuen LL.M. ’11, Andrea Johnson ’12, Meghna Rajadhyaksha LL.M. ’11, Hillary Schneller ’12, and MiRi Song ’12—assisted Ahmed in applying for asylum. The students spent several months conducting interviews, drafting affidavits, researching country conditions, contacting experts, and preparing the client for his interview with a U.S. government asylum officer.
“One of the difficulties in confronting Mauritania’s violently homophobic law is that reported instances of state or tribal execution are not published,” explains Matthews. “The Mauritanian government and the country’s powerful tribal system often cover up their execution of GLBT individuals, recording other causes of death.”The students relied on reports by the U.S. government and non-governmental organizations, in addition to the testimony of experts, to document Mauritania’s severe laws and the harsh treatment of and lack of protection for gay people in the country.
“As being gay and assisting gay individuals is forbidden in Mauritania, we faced challenges in collecting corroborating letters from Ahmed’s family and friends,” adds Yuen. “Fortunately, we were able to find several experts who could attest to the dangerous conditions for gay people in Mauritania and to the particular facts of Ahmed’s case.”In April, the students also accompanied their client to the asylum office in Rosedale, New York, for his interview. After Ahmed’s interview, he and the students were told to expect a decision in his case in two weeks. Six months later, his asylum grant arrived.
“With policy meetings ongoing in Washington, D.C., to step up efforts to protect the thousands of refugees and asylum-seekers persecuted each year for their sexual orientation and gender identity, we are all very relieved to see the U.S. government’s protections for gay asylum-seekers in action,” says Kim.Columbia Law School’s Sexuality & Gender Law Clinic addresses cutting-edge issues in sexuality and gender law through litigation, legislation, public policy analysis, and other forms of advocacy. Under the guidance of Professor Suzanne Goldberg, clinic students have worked on a wide range of projects, from constitutional litigation to legislative advocacy to immigration cases, to serve both individual and organizational clients in cases involving issues of sexuality and gender law.