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Escaping abuse overseas: gay men from conservative countries are winning the right to asylum in the United States.

In January 2003, Wissam Abyad, an openly gay man in Egypt, arranged an in-person meeting at a Cairo McDonald's with a gay man he'd met via the Internet. The man claimed that he'd just moved to the area and wanted to meet other gay men.

At 1 P.M. Abyad was standing in front of the fast-food chain when his cell phone rang. "I'm here, where are you?" the man asked. "Why don't you wave to show me where you are."

As Abyad complied, a group of policemen and vice cops descended on him. They arrested him on charges of "public morality offenses."

Abyad was interrogated, threatened by police officials, and thrown into jail. During his trial he was displayed in a cage and was not allowed to testify in his defense. The judge gave him a sentence of one year and three months. "Egyptian jail cells do not have running water, bathrooms, or a place to sleep," Abyad says. "Inmates depend on their families to bring them basic necessities."

Yet in the end Abyad was one of the lucky openly gay men and lesbians trapped in such a culture. His case got worldwide attention, prison officials bowed to the pressure, and he was released in January 2004. He arrived in the United States in April with the help of human rights groups and his American partner. And he successfully got asylum.

Such cases are becoming increasingly common as gay Muslim men from the Middle East--and other conservative regions--have won the right to stay in the United States based on the threat of persecution in their home countries due to their sexual orientation.

Since 1994, based on a clarification of the law from then--attorney general Janet Reno, fear of persecution for sexual orientation has been grounds for being granted asylum in the United States. The burden of proof for such cases is also low, with a judge only needing to determine a person is subject to a 10% chance of enduring persecution if they were to return to their country of origin.

The law remains a murky middle ground, and unfamiliarity with GLBT issues has sunk many of the asylum claims filed since Reno's actions. But lately, a few cases were able to work their way through the system, as lawyers say the plight of gay men in the Middle East is starting to resonate within the courts and immigration system.

Perhaps the groundbreaking case for gay Middle Eastern asylum seekers is that of a 29-year-old Iranian who had battled for his asylum since November 2001 after realizing his life would be in danger if he returned to his native land.

Mohammad, the name his lawyers have given him to protect his identity, came to the United States from Iran in June 2001 after meeting a man in Maryland online. His first interview with federal authorities for asylum didn't go well, however, as an agent was seemingly more interested in the amount of time he'd spent in the United States than in his safety if he were deported.

In fact, his first claim was denied on the grounds that he may have been in the States for more than 12 months--the deadline for filing for asylum after arrival. After another attempt in 2002, the government demanded proof that he was indeed gay.

"Immigration officials wanted to confirm that he met his burden of proof for eligibility," says Chris Nugent, community services team senior counsel with Holland and Knight in Washington, D.C. "Winning asylum is a rare thing to get, because you have to prove the credibility of the person and the threat they face."

In the case of people from the Middle East, however, the threat is plain. Religious leaders often issue overt threats of arrest or death to homosexuals. And these threats are backed up by state laws, either legislated or simply de facto enforced, that punish homosexuality. In Iran, for instance, the punishment for sodomy between two men is known to be death. For lesbian conduct the penalty is 100 lashes from a whip.

Mohammad also had the testimony of friends and his lover to back up his claims. Eventually the government had no other choice than to enforce its own guidelines and in December 2004 awarded him asylum in the U.S.

Adding to the momentum of this case, Nassier Karouni, a gay, HIV-positive Lebanese man set for deportation, was awarded temporary visitor status in March by the ninth U.S. circuit court of appeals on the basis of his homosexuality and the threats he faced at home because of it. The decision overruled that of a federal immigration board that would have sent the man to Lebanon while his asylum case was pending in the United States.

"The attorney general appears content with saddling Karouni with the Hobson's choice of either returning to Lebanon and facing persecution for future homosexual acts or living a life of celibacy," wrote Judge Harry Pregerson in the Karouni decision. "In our opinion, neither option is acceptable."

Nugent says he has found success with other cases with people from Egypt, Africa, and even South and Central America as the plights of gays and lesbians abroad starts to hit home with the American judicial system. But the situation in the Middle East, with so much media attention focused on the everyday violence of life and the power of religious leaders within those countries, lends credibility to claims that aliens from those countries make.

Analysts say the threat of terrorism felt by many Americans may be bringing a measure of sympathy for those in persecuted communities--even as issues of civil rights remain hot-button issues on ballot initiatives nationwide.

"There are all kinds of contradictions going on here," says Steve Dubin, professor of sociology at State University of New York, Purchase College. "But it does seem monumental to get rulings like this given the current political environment. This is essentially extending the concept of human rights to gay people who see the U.S. as a safe harbor. And to have people in a position of power who agree with this position is certainly interesting given the [slow] movement on gay and lesbian issues in other areas of the culture."

Other legal observers note that since the Reno precedent was set, only a dozen or so GLBT individuals have won asylum, according to a review of law journals. The vast majority of claims are tossed out and the claimants promptly deported.

"I doubt that there's any sort of 'trend,' " says Donna E. Arzt, professor of law at Syracuse University and director of the school's Center for Global Law and Practice. "What may be happening is that so few men from the Middle East are receiving asylum at all since 9/11 that these cases stand out." Whether other cases work through the system in coming months remains to be seen, although a set precedent will surely weigh in future claimants' favors. "What you're doing is essentially saving a person's life," says attorney Nugent.

Immigration abuse in the United States

Yorro Kuyateh, a gay asylum seeker from the African country of Gambia, was tortured in his home country due to his sexuality and his political views. He arrived in the United States with a student visa. However, when he came to America, he was severely beaten and permanently injured while in immigration custody in Missouri.

In January 2003, Kuyateh had applied for a job at a Springfield, Mo., trucking company. A routine background check revealed that his student visa had expired. The company called U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and Kuyateh was sent to a county jail.

Rumors spread among inmates that he was a "snitch" and a "fag." As a result he was beaten by another inmate, and he maintains that officials failed to protect him. "I never thought that something like this would happen to me in the United States," he says.

Without the right to a government-appointed counsel, Kuyateh had to prepare and represent his asylum claim himself. He began researching the law in the jail's library and discovered that he could be granted asylum based on his sexual orientation. He began reaching out to attorneys and various human rights groups.

His appeal was denied, but lawyers took his case on a pro bono basis. They petitioned the eighth U.S. circuit court of appeals. After new evidence was introduced and U.S. representatives Elanor Holmes Norton and Barney Frank intervened, the Board of Immigration Appeals reopened Kuyateh's case, granting him a new trial.

Due to his injuries, Kuyateh cannot work and is staying with a Maryland family. His trial is set for January 2006.

Hudson has written for The Detroit News.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:IMMIGRATION
Author:Hudson, Mike
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 24, 2005
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