Tuesday, May 29, 2012
Christian Family from Pakistan Wins Asylum
Recent political events in Pakistan concerning that country’s blasphemy law created a dangerous situation for the family, who felt the need to flee to the United States for safety. Pakistan’s blasphemy law imposes the death sentence for anyone who desecrates the name of Allah or Mohamed. The law has been used as a weapon by Muslim extremists to harass and persecute religious minorities in Pakistan. Some Pakistani politicians have expressed their opposition to the law.
In the last year or so, two politicians who opposed Pakistan’s blasphemy were assassinated. In March of 2011, Minister of Minority Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti, the only Christian member of the Pakistani Cabinet, was assassinated for his opposition to the blasphemy law. Another outspoken opponent of the blasphemy law, Salmen Taseer, the Governor of Punjab, was assassinated by his own police bodyguard, Mumtaz Qadri. Adding insult to injury, Taseer’s son, Shahbaz Taseer, was abducted in October of 2011. Qadri stood trial for the murder of Qadri. He was convicted and sentenced to death. Muslim extremists, however, considered Qadri to be a hero of Islam, and engaged in street protests across the country over his sentence. These Muslim extremists were so feared, that the Government of Pakistan sent Syed Pervaiz Ali Shah, the judge who issued the sentence in the Qadri case, to Saudi Arabia in order to protect him and his family from reprisals.
One group of Muslim extremists who organized protests of the Qadri sentence was the Sunni Ittehad Council. Ironically, the United States gave the Sunni Ittehad Council a grant in 2009 to organize a protest against the Taliban. Since that time, however, the group changed leadership, and began vocally supporting the continued existence of Pakistan’s blasphemy law.
On Sunday, October 2, 2011, the husband and wife attended worship service at their church. On that same day, demonstrations were held across Pakistan protesting the Qadri sentence. The husband believes that some of the protestors laid in wait outside of his church, and chose to follow his car. After the husband withdrew money from an ATM, he and his wife went to a gas station, called a petrol station in Pakistan. It was there that two gunmen approached them, and hit the husband in the right hand, causing bruising. The men stole his money and his wallet, which contained his ATM card, his credit cards and a photocopy of his identification card. They grabbed the rosary beads which were hanging from the rear view mirrors, and said that Christians were not welcome here. They warned him not to report this incident to the police, and left.
Having lost his ATM card, credit cards and the photocopy of his identification card, the husband felt he had no choice but to report the incident to the police. He was most concerned with the loss of the photocopy of his identification card, fearing that now Muslim extremists had his personal identification information, which could be used to further target him. But, he also feared reporting the incident to the police. He knew that the Governor of Punjab had been assassinated by a police officer assigned to his security. He believed that Muslim extremists had connections within the police department, and that the police would let the extremists know that he reported the incident.
Less than two weeks later, the wife was driving from her mother’s house to the family’s home, with the couple’s teenage son in the car. The normal route home took her past a Mosque, where young Muslim where were sorting papers and placing them in piles. In Islam, whenever a paper has the name Allah or Mohamed written on it, it becomes holy and cannot be desecrated. Newspapers will often print Quranic verses, which means that they cannot be destroyed. The men were sorting papers with the name of Allah or the Prophet printed on them, so the papers would not be desecrated.
As she drove past the Mosque, the papers became disturbed. Some flew under her wheel. The men became angry, and started chasing the car, yelling that she had desecrated the name of the Prophet on purpose. They yelled that they were going to burn the car, and reached in to grab the teenage boy. Some men were carrying sticks, and smashed the rear passenger’s side window. Frightened, the wife stepped on the gas, and drove back to her mother’s house, where she called her husband. The husband left work and got there as soon as he could. He called the family home, where the couple’s teenage daughter was, and told her not to go outside until he came to pick her up.
The husband believed that the Muslim extremists now had everything they needed to charge him with blasphemy, and seek his death. They had his name and identifying information from the robbery. They had seen his car. Now that same car had driven by a Mosque and ran over papers with the names of Allah and the Prophet written on them. The husband also knew that under the Sharia, or Muslim law, it would only take two male Muslim witnesses to establish that he had committed blasphemy. Because of Pakistan’s blasphemy law, he feared that he and his family faced certain death. The family already had tourist visas to the United States. Using those visas, the family packed up what belongings they could, and came to the United States. The husband’s extended family in Virginia, which is where they went.
Days after arriving in Virginia, the family consulted with attorney William J. Kovatch, Jr. Kovatch specializes in immigration law. Kovatch recommended that the family apply for asylum, and agreed to represent them in the proceedings. The husband remained in contact with his neighbors back in Pakistan, who confirmed that his worst fears had come true. One of his neighbors, who worked as a security guard, stated that members of the Sunni Ittehad Council had come and asked where he was. When the guard said that the family had gone abroad, the men said that the husband was a blasphemer, that they would find him and that he would be killed for desecrating the name of the Prophet. The neighbor also stated that the Sunni Ittehad Council had distributed flyers in the neighborhood, accusing the husband of blasphemy and calling on all true believers to kill him. The flyers were on the letterhead of the Nizam-e-Mustafa Party, which translates into the party of the Law of Mohamed, or the Law of the Chosen One.
Later, the Sunni Ittehad Council hung posters up in the neighborhood, again accusing the husband of blasphemy against the Prophet and calling on true believers to kill him. These posters, however, were attached to a copy of the husband’s identification card, which bore his photograph. This appeared to confirm that the family had been the victim of a concerted effort of Muslim extremists, who shared the photocopy of the husband’s identification card with the Sunni Ittehad Council in order to perpetrate this campaign of terror against him.
“This was not an easy case to present,” said Kovatch. “Although we submitted a large stack of paper showing incidents in Pakistan where Christians faced persecution at the hands of Muslim extremists, it was difficult to get information out of Pakistan. When we submitted the application, we did not have copies of the flyers, and did not know about the posters.” In addition, although the wife and two children came to the Arlington Asylum Office with the husband on the day of his interview, the Asylum Officer declined to interview them.
At first, the Asylum Office issued a Notice of Intent to Deny, or a NOID. Among the reasons given by the NOID were that the first incident appeared to be motivated by an intent to rob, and not an intent to persecute, that the second incident did not involve the husband directly, but only his wife and son, and that there was no evidence that anyone was targeting the husband directly.
The NOID gave the husband additional time to address the concerns raised, and submit more evidence. By this time, the husband had obtained a copy of the flyers circulated in his neighborhood and had it translated. Kovatch submitted the flyer, along with a letter from a pastor from Pakistan testifying to the danger Christians faced in that country. Kovatch also submitted a letter brief, noting that the Asylum Office had applied an incorrect legal standard in the NOID. Among the arguments Kovatch made was that an asylum applicant was not required to show evidence of a direct threat against his life, if he can show a pattern of persecution against similarly situated people. Kovatch highlighted the evidence of persecution against other Christians in Pakistan. This evidence included the stories of the husband’s extended family members who had been granted asylum in the United States because of their religion. Kovatch submitted this package by overnight carrier days before the deadline to respond to the NOID.
A few days later, the husband obtained an affidavit from the security guard who told him how the Sunni Ittehad Council had come looking for him. Kovatch immediately submitted this to the Asylum Office, even though the deadline had passed. Then, the husband obtained photographs of the posters that bore his picture, and had the posters translated. Again, Kovatch immediately submitted this evidence to the Asylum Office.
Just two weeks after submitting the last of the evidence, the family received a denial letter from the Asylum Office. The only reason given for the denial was that the information submitted “failed to overcome the grounds for denial as stated in the NOID.”
Normally, once an asylum application is denied, the applicant is referred to Immigration Court, where an Immigration Judge hears the evidence and makes an entirely new decision. When the family received the final denial, however, their permission to stay in the United States had not yet expired. Thus, with no reason to place the family in deportation proceedings, the Asylum Office did not refer the case to an Immigration Judge.
After consulting with other attorneys, Kovatch recommended that the family file a motion to reconsider the decision with the Asylum Office. The timing had to be right. It had to be submitted within thirty days of the final denial, and it had to be timed so that if the motion were denied, the family would be out of status, and thus referred to an Immigration Judge.
Kovatch argued that the family’s due process rights had been violated because the final denial was summary in fashion, and failed to specifically address the new evidence submitted in response to the NOID. Kovatch made sure to attach all of the new evidence to the motion, and personally delivered it to the Asylum Office.
The husband was scheduled for a re-interview. The interview was with the same Asylum Officer who had previously heard the case. This time, the questions concentrated on the new evidence, and why the husband believed this was a coordinated effort among Muslim extremists. The Asylum Officer also heard from the wife, who testified emotionally about how she feared that she was going to lose her only son when her car was attacked.
Two weeks after the re-interview, the family and Kovatch went back to the Asylum Office to pick up the decision, which this time granted the family asylum. After one year, the family may apply to become permanent residents of the United States.
A year earlier, Kovatch won asylum for a woman from Nepal, who had converted from Hindu to Islam, and married a Muslim. Her father, who had beaten her, her mother and her sister in the past without police intervention, had threatened to kill her for what she had done. By winning asylum, Kovatch saved the woman from deportation. Kovatch is currently representing a woman from Western Africa, whose asylum claim is based on her fear that her daughter would face female genital mutilation if the woman were returned to her home country. That case is currently pending before the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.