ICE imprisons Sri Lankan torture survivor for more than 21 months in Boston

April 29, 2010 12:00 am

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ACLU files suit asking for immediate release of man granted asylum in U.S. more than a year ago.


BOSTON — For more than 21 months, the federal government has held a Sri Lankan torture survivor in a Boston jail, even though it granted him asylum to stay in the country more than a year ago. The ACLU filed suit late Wednesday in U.S. District Court, asking for the immediate release of Baskaran Balasundaram, or at least for a fair hearing to determine whether his continued detention is appropriate.

Balasundaram is a 27-year-old Tamil farmer who has suffered severe persecution from both sides in Sri Lanka’s bloody civil war. In May 2007, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) — also known as the “Tamil Tigers,” and designated by the U.S. government as a terrorist organization in 1997 — captured Balasundaram at gunpoint and held him at one of their training camps. He managed to escape, only to be repeatedly captured and tortured by Sri Lankan government forces.

Fearing for his own safety and that of his family, Balasundaram fled to the United States, arriving at Boston’s Logan Airport in July 2008. However, the Department of Homeland Security took him into custody, where he has remained ever since, because DHS maintains that he provided material support to his terrorist captors. DHS claims that being forced to work in a kitchen making food for other captives was enough to trigger the “material support” statute. They argue that he should be barred from the country and remain in detention until his immigration proceedings conclude — a process that could take months or years.

“Imagine being persecuted by both sides in a civil war and escaping to the United States, only to have the U.S. Department of Homeland Security classify you along with the terrorists and torturers from whom you fled, and hold you indefinitely,” said Laura Rótolo, staff attorney with the ACLU of Massachusetts. “The government may not keep Mr. Balasundaram in jail forever because of their overly broad reading of an anti-terrorism statute. This violates fundamental constitutional principles and undermines the system of asylum that was created precisely to protect people in situations like this.”

Both sides in the 25-year conflict in Sri Lanka have been charged with extensive human rights abuses, including torture, arbitrary arrest, conscription of child soldiers, killings, and disappearances. According to the U.S. State Department, the “overwhelming majority of victims of human rights violations, such as killings and disappearances, were young male Tamils,” such as Baskaran Balasundaram.

In February 2009, an immigration judge in Boston ruled that Balasundaram’s account of torture and persecution were credible and granted him asylum because he would be in danger if he returned to Sri Lanka. The judge found that Balasundaram never “provided funds, transportation, a safe house, or anything else constituting ‘material support’ to the LTTE.”

“Baskaran Balasundaram came to the United States seeking refuge from the ordeal he suffered in his homeland — not its continuation,” said Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts. “The United States has already granted him asylum, and he should be released immediately.”

For more information about the case, Balasundaram v. Chadbourne, see:

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