LOS ANGELES - A Sri Lankan Tamil torture victim was released late Monday night after spending more than four and a half years in a federal detention center despite being granted political asylum by an immigration judge and withholding of removal by a federal appeals court.
Saluja Thangaraja, who was released on her twenty-sixth birthday, fled Sri Lanka in October 2001 after being tortured, beaten and held captive there. She was detained on the U.S.-Mexico border later that month on her way to reunite with relatives in Canada and has been held in a federal detention center in Otay Mesa near San Diego since then.
"Although she won withholding two years ago and then asylum, the government kept her locked up for no reason simply because it was appealing her case. She did nothing wrong; she just came to this country seeking asylum from persecution," said Ranjana Natarajan, her attorney at the ACLU of Southern California.
Thangaraja's release comes after the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously ordered the release of Ahilan Nadarajah, a Sri Lankan Tamil torture victim who also escaped persecution and had been imprisoned by the U.S. government for nearly five years despite being granted asylum twice. Thangaraja and Nadarajah fled Sri Lanka in the same group, though they did not know each other previously.
Upon her release from detention, Thangaraja said, "I'm very happy. I'm relieved this day has finally come."
The Ninth Circuit ruled that Nadarajah's detention violated the law because of its extreme length and because there was almost no chance the government would remove him to another country. Judge Sidney R. Thomas writing for the three-judge panel said, "...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." Nadarajah was also represented by the ACLU of Southern California.
"Ms. Thangaraja's case is remarkably similar to the case of Mr. Nadarajah. Both were torture victims, both were detained for almost five years, and both were in detention despite winning their cases," Natarajan said. "In Ms. Thangaraja's case, moreover, she won her case from a federal court two years ago. Like the Nadarajah case, her release shows that the government cannot detain people for years and years without very good reason."
Saluja Thangaraja is a member of the Tamil ethnic minority in Sri Lanka. In the mid-1990s, during years of civil unrest and turmoil, her family was displaced from their home and forced to live in a police camp after conflict broke out in her small town between the Sri Lankan Army and the separatist group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. After finally returning to their home Thangaraja was twice abducted, beaten, tortured and accused by the army of being an LTTE member, which she is not. Both times she was held for weeks and both times her family had to bribe the army for her release. After her second abduction, Thangaraja went into hiding before her family decided she was not safe in Sri Lanka and she must leave the country to protect her life.
Since fleeing Sri Lanka in October 2001, Thangaraja's case has been in limbo in immigration courts. She was charged with being present in the U.S. without a valid visa and she applied for political asylum under the Geneva Convention Against Torture. Over the last four and a half years her case has worked it's way up to the Ninth Circuit and back down to an immigration judge again where she was granted asylum in June 2005, but has continued to be detained until Monday.