By Anna Merlan
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Emmy Kutesa propped his chin on his hand to keep his head from drooping as he waited on Thursday for an immigration judge to decide his fate. By then, he had not eaten for a month. And on Monday the day the Voice goes to press Kutesa refused solid food again. Kutesa is the last of some 130 asylum seekers who have been detained in an Immigration and Naturalization Service facility in Queens to sustain a hunger strike that began in late July. Cooped up in an isolated former warehouse near JFK airport, the detainees from Africa, Latin America, and Asia seized the only means they deemed available to protest the INS's draconian parole policies for asylum seekers. But one by one the protesters have either been sent away to prisons in other states or have given up, leaving only Kutesa.
The hunger strikers say that the INS's parole policies have been especially harsh here in New York, and a new report issued by the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, also on Thursday, confirms their complaint. According to the report, the "New York INS district is among the most restrictive in the country" when it comes to paroling detainees seized at the airport for trying to enter the U.S. without legal documents. Asylum seekers who establish a "credible fear of persecution" in their home countries are supposed to be permitted parole. Yet the lawyers' committee report states that INS headquarters has not complied with its own guidelines. At the detention center in Queens, which is run by the thriving private-prison conglomerate Wackenhut Corp., fewer than a quarter of the asylum seekers found to have credible fear were paroled last year; detention there averaged 109 days.
Kutesa has languished at Wackenhut ever since he arrived at JFK on March 6, 1998, after a circuitous escape from his native Uganda in 1993 that took him through Rwanda, Burundi, Kenya, Holland, and Sweden. According to the transcript of his credible-fear interview which he passed Kutesa was tortured by the Ugandan military, in which he served for 11 years, for giving an army document to enemies. "I was afraid Tutsis were going to harm Hutus," he testified. "I got my uncle information from the army." Kutesa's mother and uncle are Hutus.
At Kutesa's initial asylum hearing in July 1998, Judge Donn Livingston ruled that Kutesa, 28, had indeed been tortured in Uganda, but denied him asylum all the same. According to Kutesa's lawyer, G. Lukongwa Binaisa, the judge maintained that Kutesa's torture resulted from criminal charges of treason, not from political persecution, and thus did not qualify him for asylum. "That astonished me," says Binaisa. "Mr. Livingston is not sitting as a judge in Uganda to determine if my client committed a crime there. He made a clear finding of fact on torture." Binaisa filed an appeal or so he thought. Because of bureaucratic bungles on both sides, the appeal ended up in an INS folder instead of in the hands of the Board of Immigration Appeals (though the agency kept the $110 filing fee), and Kutesa's case remained in limbo.
On Thursday, in an unusual and according to some immigrant advocates, generous move Livingston offered to start the process all over again. He said he would reopen Kutesa's case if Kutesa started eating again. He scheduled a new hearing for September 20. Kutesa stared blankly as the judge urged, "I want you to be strong for the hearing," and as an interpreter translated the entreaty into Luganda. But slowly he nodded. Then, as guards escorted him out of the hearing room, he said, "The deal is okay; I'll eat a little bit." But Binaisa says that it has not been easy to persuade him to go along. "He doesn't trust anyone," he says.
ââ Activists who have been supporting the Wackenhut hunger strikers with visits and rallies say that Kutesa has become an important symbol for those who could not keep up the fight. Some detainees said their health couldn't take it. Others said they feared repercussions such as solitary confinement or forced feeding (though the INS says that no such threats were made). Still others, like Hosea Oyetakin, one of the leaders of the protest, were moved to a faraway prison within days of calling the strike. According to his lawyer, Nadeen Waeen, Oyetakin was transferred to York County prison in southern Pennsylvania, making attorney visits all but impossible.
Detained for six months so far, Oyetakin, 23, fled his native Nigeria last February after a rival ethnic gang and members of the military burned down his village, killed his father, and beat and stabbed him. He was denied asylum in June because, according to the INS, gang violence, terrible though it may be, is not state-sponsored. Even the participation of soldiers, if they aren't acting on government orders, does not qualify such crimes as political persecution. The case is on appeal, and Oyetakin has not been granted parole while the agency crawls through its backlog of cases.
At Wackenhut, Oyetakin told Waeen, guards often shove detainees and speak to them abusively. So he urged them to protest. To the INS, however, Oyetakin was trying to incite a riot with false accusations. Oyetakin also said that guards beat him with batons as they removed him to York. But in a letter replying to activists who had complained of such punitive transfers, INS district director Edward McElroy insists that detainees were moved only when they "began displaying violent tendencies" and that he would never transfer detainees "to prevent their ability to communicate," even though that, says Waeen, is an indisputable result. Waeen must wait for Oyetakin to call him incoming calls are not possible at the prison and detainees need expensive phone cards to do so. As for the allegations of beating, Wackenhut referred inquiries to the INS, and INS spokesperson Alan Atkinson says, "If it occurred and were an issue, I would have heard about it, and I haven't heard about it."