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Court Orders Government to Free Sri Lankan

March 19, 2006

SAN DIEGO (AP) _ After more than four years in U.S. detention centers, Ahilan Nadarajah will soon gain the freedom he sought when he fled Sri Lanka and the government forces there that he says repeatedly jailed and tortured him.

He had reached the United States in October 2001 only to be detained on the same accusations that almost got him killed in his home country: He is suspected of being a member of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a separatist group listed as a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department.

Nadarajah denies the claims, and immigration judges have twice granted him asylum. But the federal government refused to release him.

The latest order came Friday from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, telling the U.S. government it was violating federal law by continuing to hold him even though he wasn’t criminally charged and couldn’t be deported in the foreseeable future. His lawyers said they now expect him to be freed in a few days.

``I lost my time and my life, and I almost lost my mind, too,″ Nadarajah said in a phone interview from the Otay Mesa detention center, at the U.S.-Mexico border south of San Diego. ``It’s not fair. They put me in jail without reason.″

Justice Department spokeswoman Cynthia Magnuson said the decision was being reviewed but would not elaborate.

Nadarajah, an ethnic Tamil who turns 26 on Wednesday, came from a family of farmers in northern Sri Lanka, the island nation of 20 million off the coast of India.

In 1995, the Sri Lankan army bombed the area, killing Nadarajah’s older brother and forcing the family to relocate. When they later returned, Nadarajah was accused of being a member of the Tamil Tigers, a group that was fighting for an independent state for the ethnic minority on Sri Lanka.

Nadarajah says he was repeatedly jailed and tortured by government forces there that pistol-whipped him, forced his head into a plastic bag with gasoline and left him hanging upside down for hours. Finally, he got a passport and exit visa from a smuggler and traveled through Thailand, South Africa, Brazil and Mexico before he was arrested at the U.S. border on Oct. 27, 2001.

He applied for asylum, arguing that if he were sent back to Sri Lanka he would be tortured and possibly killed.

The U.S. government opposed his application, saying he was affiliated with the Tamil Tigers.

In the 9th Circuit’s ruling Friday, Judge Sidney R. Thomas said Nadarajah’s detention was ``unreasonable, unjustified and in violation of federal law,″ and called a government argument ``patently absurd.″ The ruling followed a 2001 Supreme Court ruling that immigrants must be freed if their deportation is ``no longer reasonably foreseeable,″ a period interpreted by many legal experts as being about six months.

Nadarajah’s attorney described the case as one of the Bush administration’s repeated violations of immigration law in the name of national security.

``The government got it completely wrong about whether he was a terrorist, and overreached for detention powers Congress never granted,″ said Ahilan Arulanantham of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Nadarajah is anxious to be free. He wants to improve his English _ which he learned in jail after arriving without speaking a word of the language _ go to college and get some ``good food.″

``I’m tired of this place,″ said Nadarajah. ``I want to be outside, you know? But this was worth it because it saved my life.″


On the Net:

9th Circuit: http://www.ca9.uscourts.gov/

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