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Jailed 4 1/2 Years in Land of the Free

In 2001, a Sri Lankan was arrested at the U.S. border and labeled a security threat. A court found the case absurd.

April 07, 2006|H.G. Reza | Times Staff Writer

The young farmer from the Indian Ocean country of Sri Lanka wanted only to get to Canada to escape the torture. Instead, he has landed in the north Los Angeles suburb of Lancaster.

Accused of being a terrorist in his native country, Ahilan Nadarajah left in September 2001 and was guided by smugglers through Thailand, South Africa, Brazil and Mexico. He intended to sneak into the United States on his way to Toronto but was arrested at the border.

He was twice granted political asylum by a U.S. immigration judge, but the Department of Homeland Security branded him a national security threat. He spent nearly 4 1/2 years in a U.S. jail while the government tried to deport him to Sri Lanka.

He was freed March 21 after the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals called his lengthy detention illegal in a bristling 37-page opinion that took aim at the Bush administration's controversial practice of indefinitely detaining immigrants accused of terrorism but not charged. The three-judge panel said keeping him jailed violated a 2001 U.S. Supreme Court ruling against indefinite detention in immigration cases.

The court's unanimous ruling called Nadarajah's jailing illegal and unreasonable and said the government's arguments were "patently absurd," "implausible" and "baffling."

The 26-year-old postmaster's son remains remarkably free of animosity toward the United States, despite having been locked up in solitary for five months.

"Although I believe I was jailed unjustly, I'm grateful because the American government saved my life by not sending me back," Nadarajah said in an interview last week at a Sri Lankan restaurant in Lancaster. The chances are slim he will be allowed into Canada, where he intended to seek asylum, and the U.S. probably will become his home. Much of the evidence the U.S. government used to label Nadarajah a member of the Tamil Tigers, which the State Department has branded as terrorist, came from an informant working for Canadian law enforcement.

The Sri Lankan government has been at war for two decades with the Tamil Tigers, which seeks an independent state for ethnic Tamils. Both sides have committed human rights abuses, including torture, kidnappings and politically motivated killings, according to Amnesty International.

The 9th Circuit believed Nadarajah's account: that the Sri Lankan army began jailing and torturing him when he was 17 to persuade him to admit membership in the Tamil Tigers. He was repeatedly arrested, beaten, burned with cigarette butts and hung upside down with his head inside a bag of gasoline. Twice his mother bribed army officials to release him, and the family finally decided he should leave the country.

Officials at the Sri Lankan embassy in Washington did not return calls seeking comment.

Nadarajah said his family sold their farm and jewelry to raise the $17,000 that a smuggling ring charged to take him to Canada. Although he had no close relatives there, Nadarajah said he hoped to gain asylum and join that country's sizable Tamil community.

On Sept. 21, 2001, he left Sri Lanka for Bangkok, the first leg of his journey, where he obtained a Mexican visa. He was arrested Oct. 27 while trying to enter the U.S. at San Ysidro with false immigration papers.

He remained locked up despite receiving political asylum from an immigration judge, whose rulings were upheld on appeal. The government also refused to allow him out on $20,000 bond, which the appellate court called an abuse of discretion. In arguing for Nadarajah's continued detention, the Bush administration insisted that he was not being held indefinitely because Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales would review his case at some point, as the immigration laws provide.

"[But] no one can satisfactorily assure us as to when that day will arrive," the appellate court ruled.

The U.S. government's evidence that Nadarajah was a terrorist was based mainly on information from a secret informant for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, who did not testify. Instead, a federal agent read from Canadian police reports about the informant, and he testified about his one meeting with him.

The 9th Circuit discounted the testimony and criticized the agent's claim that Nadarajah and a Sri Lankan woman, also in custody for entering the U.S. illegally, jointly called Canada to order a slaying. The court noted that the agent could not explain how they could have called from a jail where men and women are not allowed to mix.

The agent also could not explain why he had not subpoenaed the phone records.

"Every time I win in court, they're appealing. It's like a game to them, and they're playing with your life," Nadarajah said.

Despite dismay over his lengthy incarceration, he noted an important difference about his experience in a U.S. jail.

"I was not tortured in America," said Nadarajah, who was locked up in an immigration detention facility near San Diego.

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