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Mentally Ill Gay Guyanese Victim Of Torture Is Freed From A Complex Odyssey Of Over Six Years In Immigration Custody

by Chris Nugent and Leon Fresco of the Holland & Knight Community Services Team

December 22, 2006: Our pro bono client Peter Conrad Ali is a forty-year-old mentally ill gay Guyanese victim of torture including experiences of rape by governmental authorities in Guyana. He was detained by immigration authorities since 2000 after his return from Guyana and subjected to three separate removal proceedings on his claims for deferral of removal protection under the United Nations Convention against Torture. The procedural history of Peter's case is complex but merits detailed explanation as it is illustrative of the current challenges in immigration practice. After Peter's return to the United States in 2000, in 2002, an Immigration Judge in Virginia initially granted Peter's claim to Convention against Torture protection and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) did not appeal this grant.

However, after Peter, through pro bono counsel Amy Yerguy of Catholic Charities in Washington, D.C. and former Northern Virginia Associate Anand Ramana under the supervision of Partner James Rodio and Washington D.C. Community Services Team Senior Counsel Christopher Nugent at Holland & Knight LLP filed a habeas corpus action in federal district court to secure his release from immigration custody, in June 2003, DHS decided to file a motion to terminate Peter's deferral of removal status. In February 2004, the Immigration Judge failed to reopen proceedings to terminate Peter's deferral of removal status. In March 2004, the United States Government instead decided to prosecute Peter for the federal crime of illegal reentry after removal from Guyana even though the United States Government had originally declined to prosecute Peter when he was originally apprehended in 2000. Peter was remanded into custody of the United States Marshal's Service and transferred to New York for prosecution.

Upon transferring Peter to New York, the United States Government sought to dismiss his habeas corpus petition since he was no longer in DHS custody and ultimately prevailed when venue in his immigration proceedings were transferred from Virginia to New York and a new Immigration Judge decided to proceed with proceedings to terminate his deferral of removal status. Subsequently, the federal district court in Virginia dismissed his habeas corpus claim and Peter was convicted and sentenced to time served for illegal reentry after removal by a federal district court in New York. Despite the zealous advocacy of pro bono counsel Olivia Cassin of the Legal Aid Society of New York and Amy Yerguy of Catholic Charities, in November 2004, the new Immigration Judge terminated Peter's deferral of removal protection.

However, on appeal represented by Holland & Knight LLP, in April 2005, the Board of Immigration Appeals remanded Peter's case back to the Immigration Judge for failure to consider the entire record in reaching his decision including listening to the tapes of the previous Immigration Judge's decision and giving deference to the previous Immigration Judge's favorable credibility findings.

Upon remand, in October 2005, represented by Olivia Cassin and Christopher Nugent, after substantial evidence was provided by Peter, his mother Marjorie and expert witnesses Dr. Frances Geteles, a psychologist affiliated with Physicians for Human Rights; and two prominent international expert witnesses concerning country conditions for both criminal deportees and homosexuals, while acknowledging the serious problems concerning police misconduct and the mistreatment of prisoners, the Immigration Judge still concluded that Peter had not established a probability that he would be detained in Guyana for any significant period or that he would be subjected to torture if detention occurred. The Immigration Judge arguably failed to give deference to the first Immigration Judge's findings and additionally dismissed Peter's claims that he faces torture on the basis of his homosexuality because he would need a boyfriend and “quite honestly, there’s reason to be concerned about whether the respondent is likely to form such a close relationship within a foreseeable period of time” given Peter's background and psychological history.

Represented on appeal by Holland & Knight LLP Christopher Nugent and Associates James Tierney and former Associate Warren Kuppin and Community Services Team interns Sarah Forney and Maria Constantinescu, in March, 2006, the Board of Immigration Appeals ultimately affirmed the Immigration Judge's decision while acknowledging that the Immigration Judge engaged in unfounded speculation and conjecture including comments concerning his ability to form a homosexual relationship.

Peter's prospects however changed dramatically after his petition for review and appellate brief were filed by Olivia Cassin, Miami Chesterfield Smith Fellow Leon Fresco and Christopher Nugent with the federal Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in 2006. Peter had become eligible for review of his custody status in July, 2006 since he had a final order of removal by the Board of Immigration Appeals.

With the assistance of Community Services Team interns Sarah Forney, Jason Baum and paralegal Sophia Thelusma, Peter supplied a plethora of evidence in support of his release pending his on-going appellate proceedings before the Second Circuit including letters of support from Representative Barney Frank (D-MA) and the not-for-profit organizations Families for Freedom, Immigration Equality and Bellevue Hospital Torture Treatment Program.

After his custody decision was denied, in November, 2006, Families for Freedom's Aarthi Shanani secured an exceptional meeting with the head of DHS Detention and Removal to plead for Peter's release. Peter's mother Marjorie, a 73 year old United States Citizen residing in Astoria, Queens, attended the meeting notwithstanding her ill health and myriad disabilities including her required use of a cane and many medications.

On December 7, 2006, after carefully considering the evidence and compelling equities at bar, DHS graciously issued a new notification that Peter was eligible for release from custody upon posting a $10,000 bond. With the assistance of Candace Johns (NYC), Peter's mother Marjorie posted bond for Peter on December 20th.

On Friday, December 22, 2006, Peter was flown from detention in Alabama to New York and released to care for his mother. While Peter's freedom is tenuous pending the outcome of his appeal to the Second Circuit, he is thankfully at home to care for his mother after over six years in immigration custody.

About The Author

Chris Nugent works as a Senior Counsel with the Community Services Team of Holland & Knight LLP in Washington, D.C. He is responsible for developing immigration-related pro-bono projects and trainings for firm offices and casework involving immigration and public policy.

Leon Fresco is a Chesterfield Smith Fellow with Holland & Knight's Community Services Team. He works exclusively on pro bono matters, focusing on immigration, civil rights, and health care litigation.

The Holland and Knight Community Services Team (CST) is a structured, institutionalized department within the Holland and Knight, drawing on all of the firm's resources. The CST has a sophisticated and extensive pro bono program staffed by full-time experts in their fields of practice.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.