WASHINGTON — The U.S. Helsinki Commission on human rights Thursday charged the Reagan Administration with violating the law in the case of a Soviet sailor who sought asylum in New Orleans but was forced to return to the Soviet Union despite congressional and public protests.
A report presented by the investigators to congressional members of the commission--created in 1976 to monitor compliance with the 1975 Helsinki accords on human rights--asserted that Immigration and Naturalization Service officials failed to recognize Miroslav Medvid's bid for asylum when he jumped into the Mississippi and swam ashore on the night of Oct. 24, 1985.
Unable to understand the 22-year-old Ukrainian, a Border Patrol agent interrogated him with the aid of an interpreter and determined Medvid to be a deserter, despite indications by the interpreter that the seaman wanted asylum.
As U.S. officials were returning Medvid to his ship, the Marshal Konev, the next day, he jumped into the river again, swam ashore and violently resisted capture by crewmen from the Konev. He was carried semiconscious aboard the ship, and a two-week confrontation between U.S. and Soviet officials ended with the seaman signing a statement that he genuinely wished to go home to the Soviet Union.
The struggle brought protests from Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), other members of Congress and the Ukrainian community in particular. As a result, a Senate subpoena was issued for Medvid to allow him to give his version of events in the case.
Officials of the Reagan Administration, however, refused to enforce the order, contending that the executive branch is not responsible for subpoenas issued by Congress. On Thursday, however, investigators told a commission hearing that this constituted a violation of federal immigration law.
The law, which carries no penalty, requires that the INS prevent the departure of an alien whose presence is known to be "needed in any connection with any investigation or proceeding" by U.S. authorities.
Under questioning by Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), co-chairman of the commission, chief investigator Paul Lamberth acknowledged the existence of "widespread rumors" that the Administration wanted to avoid conflicts with Moscow that might interfere with a summit meeting or disrupt Soviet purchases of U.S. grain, in which the Marshal Konev was involved.
However, Lamberth stressed that "we found no evidence that any conscious collusion existed" in the executive branch to return Medvid to the Soviet Union.
Staff attorney Barbara Jeanne Cart agreed with Lamberth when asked by Rep. Don Ritter (R-Pa.) whether the outcome might have been different had Medvid been brought ashore in compliance with the Senate subpoena. "Once he was put back in (Soviet) custody, the opportunity was lost," she said.
The White House referred all questions about the report to the State Department, where spokeswoman Phyllis Oakley had no comment.