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Sierra Leone Official Held in N.Y.

January 30, 1998

WASHINGTON (AP) _ A dispute over whether he belonged to the military junta that overthrew a democratically elected government in Sierra Leone is keeping Philip Sesay in an immigration detention center in New York City.

``I am a civil servant, I was never a member of the junta,″ Sesay said Thursday in a telephone interview from the Immigration and Naturalization Service’s Wakenhut facility in Queens.

Sesay, 52, who lived as a Sierra Leone diplomat in Fort Washington, Md., for 10 years until 1995 as a Sierra Leone diplomat, has been held at the dormitory-type center since Dec. 20. The State Department had revoked his visa. He is now seeking political asylum in the United States.

Sesay’s Russian-born wife, Emma, and son, Noel, 22, protested with a small group outside the State Department Thursday, calling for his release. They carried signs and shouted, ``Freedom for Dr. Sesay!″ He has a doctorate in philosophy and history from a Russian university.

The State Department action was based on a U.N. Security Council resolution imposing sanctions on Sierra Leone to pressure the military government into restoring civilian President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah, who was overthrown in a bloody coup last May.

The sanctions require U.N. member states to prevent junta leaders from entering their territory and impose an oil and arms embargo on the West African nation.

Sesay is not on the U.N. blacklist of coup leaders, according to Ambassador Hans Dahlgren of Sweden, who chairs the world body’s sanctions committee.

However, Sesay was named head of protocol soon after the coup, a U.S. official said.

Sesay denies being a part of the leadership and said he was left with no choice but to accept the posting.

``I did not dare turn down my appointment because I was in constant fear for my life,″ he said.

But a Western diplomat familiar with the situation in Sierra Leone said that many members of Kabbah’s government left the country in an orderly manner in the weeks after the coup.

Sesay says he got his wife to fax him a bogus letter claiming she was seriously ill. He used it to persuade his superiors to allow him to visit her.

``If I return, they will send me to the gallows,″ he said.

Russ Bergeron, a spokesman for the INS, declined to comment on Sesay’s asylum request. An immigration judge will rule on the matter, he said.

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