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Waiting for asylum, he fears for kin

An activist worries that his family will be harmed in Cameroon before his case is resolved in the U.S.

August 10, 2008|Anna Gorman | Times Staff Writer

The prison guards called it "morning coffee."

Every day he was behind bars, the Cameroonian political activist said, guards in his West African country tied his hands and feet and whipped his soles until they bled. He said they burned his skin with cigarettes and beat him with electric cords.

The activist, who wanted only his initials, T.S., used for fear of retaliation against relatives in Cameroon, fled the country in 2006. He made his way to Los Angeles, where he petitioned for asylum.

But nearly two years later, he is still waiting for his case to be heard by an immigration judge. Every day that passes, T.S., 40, fears for the safety of his wife and 9-year-old son, who are in hiding back home. He cannot begin the difficult and dangerous process of bringing them here until he is granted asylum.

"I thought I would be given asylum and that the United States would protect me," he said through a French interpreter. "I feel like my bad luck is actually continuing. It has actually followed me from Cameroon to here."

For asylum seekers like T.S., long waits can be devastating. Relatives of asylum seekers have been arrested, imprisoned and murdered in Cameroon, experts and lawyers said.

"All of these delays are life and death for their children," said Judy London, an attorney for the pro bono public interest law firm Public Counsel. "With all asylum cases, we have the fear of retribution back home. It is actually happening with the Cameroonian cases."

Influx of asylum seekers

Public Counsel, based in Los Angeles, has seen a recent influx of Cameroonian asylum seekers, with a caseload of about 25 in the last few years -- more than from any other country. Some are opposition party members or supporters, others are part of a group trying to secede from the country, and still others have had no political involvement. They have fled by obtaining tourist visas, using false documents or sneaking across the border.

Cameroon has long had a poor human rights record, including harsh, even life-threatening prison conditions; restrictions on citizens' freedoms of speech and unlawful killings by security forces, according to a 2007 U.S. State Department report.

"You may see people one day and not see them the next," said Debora Johnson-Ross, a professor at Maryland's McDaniel College who has done extensive research in Cameroon. "People are disappeared; people's homes are raided. People are detained."

Even though the country has more than one political party, President Paul Biya has been in power since 1982.

Opposition party members are regularly abused by the police and military, and the state mechanism for repression is well-developed, said UC Berkeley political science professor Leonardo Arriola.

He said Cameroonians are often punished for the actions of their relatives. "It's one of several means to compel people to be silent or to cooperate with the government," he said.

In one case, a Cameroonian living in Los Angeles, who agreed to give only her nickname, Pierette, because of the risk to her family, fled the country last year and was recently granted asylum, pending a background check. Pierette, an opposition politician, said she had been arrested, beaten and raped repeatedly.

"I had to leave the country," she said. "I didn't know what was going to happen to me tomorrow."

Soon after, her teenage daughter was killed in Cameroon in what Pierette believes was retaliation for her political activism. Pierette said she was anxious for her other five children to get out of the country. But she worries that their lives would be at risk if they applied for passports.

"No Cameroonian has his proper rights. . . . I am afraid that one day my country will end up like Rwanda and Ivory Coast," said Pierette, referring to those African nations' recent history of brutal campaigns of violence.

"This is how it starts."

Price of politics

T.S. said he became involved in politics in his early 20s. He helped organize a student parliament and staged hunger strikes and protests for educational equality. He said he was imprisoned without food or light for days after he was caught selling fundraising cards that said "Biya Must Go."

"Back then, I wasn't really thinking about the risks, especially because politics was in my blood," he said. "I had to do something."

After a fellow organizer was burned to death, T.S. left the university but stayed involved in politics by joining a group in opposition to Biya's government. In 1996, T.S. said, he was again arrested, detained and beaten. After being released, he went into hiding and married in a secret ceremony. His wife gave birth to his son in 1999.

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