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Rape victim gains political asylum

THE NATION

The Congolese woman's bid had earlier been denied by a U.S. judge.

December 17, 2007|Henry Weinstein | Times Staff Writer

A Congolese woman who was repeatedly raped by prison officials allegedly investigating the assassination of President Laurent Kabila has been granted political asylum in the U.S., 16 months after her bid was initially denied.

A federal immigration judge in San Antonio awarded asylum last week to the woman identified as Monique M, whose full name is being withheld to protect her and family members who remain in the Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly known as Zaire. Monique, who fled her country six years ago, is living in San Antonio.

Her case stems from Kabila's assassination on Jan. 16, 2001. At the time, Monique was working as a secretary in the Marble Palace, the chief government building in Kinshasa. She was taken into custody soon after the killing and accused of helping assassins enter the palace. She denied any involvement or knowledge and told U.S. officials later she was held in a small cell with five other women and that guards beat and raped them daily.

"The decision vindicates Monique and it dispels any notion that the horrific brutality she suffered in a Congolese prison was part of a legitimate investigation," said Jayne E. Fleming, an Oakland attorney who represented her on appeal.

Last year, an immigration judge in San Antonio rejected Monique's political asylum bid, saying her testimony lacked credibility. The judge said the brutality she described was "simply not comprehensible."

The U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals said it did not doubt the authenticity of her story but upheld the judge's ruling. It found she was not entitled to asylum because she did not face persecution in her country in any of the established categories: race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion.

In granting asylum in the reopened case, however, federal immigration Judge Bertha A. Zuniga found that Monique was persecuted because her interrogators thought she had been involved in the assassination and thus "imputed" that she had improper anti-Kabila political opinions.

Karen Musalo, a UC Hastings College of Law professor who runs a human rights clinic, said she was relieved that Monique had prevailed, but said she was troubled that the decision of the 5th Circuit holding that Monique's rape did not fit into any of the established categories for granting asylum remained on the books.

"I think it is quite shocking that a federal court in the United States would ever characterize a detention -- in which beatings and rapes were inflicted -- as part of a legitimate government investigation," Musalo said. "Rape is prohibited by numerous international law norms. The Geneva Conventions protect women against rape, and it is generally recognized that rape and other sex crimes are 'grave breaches' of the conventions."

Anibal Martinez, a lawyer for the Department of Homeland Security in San Antonio who helped Fleming get the case reopened, said Friday that he could not comment on the matter "because of privacy concerns," but said the "department tries to achieve justice in all cases."

The decision to grant Monique asylum comes as the Congo continues to be the scene of intense strife and deprivation. Experts say about 4 million people have died there and hundreds of thousands have been dislocated as a result of wars that began in 1996.

An Amnesty International Report in 2004 stated that tens of thousands of women and girls had been the "victims of systematic rape and sexual assault committed by combatant forces."

Last year, the Congo held its first democratic election in years but it has not "produced democracy, pluralism or a respect for human rights," according to a declaration submitted on Monique's behalf by Herbert F. Weiss, an emeritus professor of political science at Brooklyn College who specializes in the Congo.

He said that if Monique had to return to the Congo there was "no doubt that she would be re-imprisoned" and "almost certainly be . . . beaten, raped and possibly 'disappeared,' i.e. secretly killed."

Monique managed to escape the prison where she was held when one of the Congolese judges conducting the Kabila investigation told Monique he would help her because he knew her family.

A few days later, she was secretly taken to the border in the trunk of a car and freed. After stops in Ethiopia, Italy, New York and North Carolina, she arrived in San Antonio. She is living with another person from the Congo who advised her to apply for political asylum.

"I'm very happy" that the judge has granted asylum, Monique said. "The case took a very long time before coming to its end, and I was crying a lot because I was losing any hope that one day I will see my family again. . . . Hopefully, I will be able to see my whole entire family very soon."

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henry.weinstein@latimes.com

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