LOS ANGELES - The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously ordered the immediate release of a Sri Lankan Tamil asylum seeker and torture victim who has been imprisoned by the government for nearly five years.
Despite being granted asylum repeatedly by two immigration courts, 25-year-old Ahilan Nadarajah, who was severely persecuted in Sri Lanka before fleeing, has been held in a federal detention center in San Diego since late 2001.
"This case is about a torture victim who fled to this country seeking asylum and who was locked up for years even though he kept winning his asylum case," said Ahilan Arulanantham, staff attorney for the ACLU of Southern California. "The court's ruling strongly confirms that the government cannot lock up people for years indefinitely and without good reason."
The Ninth Circuit ruled that Nadarajah's detention violated the law for three reasons: Because of its extreme length, because there is almost no chance that the government will ever remove him to another country, and because the government's allegation that he poses a danger is completely unfounded. Writing for the three-judge panel Judge Sidney R. Thomas stated, "...we conclude that the general immigration detention statutes do not authorize the attorney general to incarcerate detainees for an indefinite period."
The Court went on to say that, consistent with Supreme Court precedent, arriving immigrants like Nadarajah who are in immigration proceedings can be detained only "for a reasonable period and only if there is a significant likelihood of removal in the reasonably foreseeable future."
"I'm so happy that this day has come and that the government will release me. I knew in my heart all along that this day would come, I just want to get on with the rest of my life," said Ahilan Nadarajah by phone from San Diego.
Nadarajah is a member of the Tamil ethnic minority in Sri Lanka who lived with his family and worked on their farm from childhood until 2001. In the mid-1990s, during years of civil unrest and turmoil, his small town was invaded by the Sri Lankan army, forcing his family to flee from their home. As a teenager, he was repeatedly kidnaped and tortured by the Sri Lankan Army solely because of his minority status. The Army accused him of being a member of the separatist group Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). At one point, the Army strung him up by his ankles and poured gasoline on him. His attackers warned him if they found him again, they would kill him.
In October 2001 Nadarajah fled Sri Lanka in fear for his life and headed to Canada, where he had family members. En route, he crossed the Mexico-U.S. border and was immediately apprehended and detained in San Diego, where he has remained.
"This case is a sharp rebuke to the government's policy of detaining immigrants for years and years while their immigration cases are pending, even when they don't pose any danger or flight risk," said Arulanantham. "The government said he was a national security risk and accused him of being affiliated with the LTTE, but every court that examined the evidence found that there was no basis whatsoever for this accusation."
Over the last four and a half years, his case has wound itself through the immigration courts. An Immigration judge twice rejected the government's allegations that Nadarajah is a national security risk and twice granted him relief under the Geneva Convention Against Torture. The decision was also affirmed by the Board of Immigration Appeals.