Ilankai Tamil Sangam

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

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Sri Lankan Trying to Build a Life

by Kathy Thornton, San Diego Union-Tribune, May 1, 2006

Remarkably, Nadarajah is upbeat despite his ordeal – a long jail term, post-traumatic stress disorder, suicidal thoughts, separation from family, culture shock, loneliness, restrictions on his freedom and the uncertainty of his future. During the interview, he smiled frequently.

“I didn't expect to be detained for so many years,” he said. “But my life has been saved by this country, and I'm grateful for that. Because they let me out, they have saved my life. They didn't send me back.”

LANCASTER – It has been just a few weeks since Ahilan Nadarajah was freed from a San Diego immigration jail, and he is already calling his roommates “homeboys” and proclaiming “American Idol” and “America's Most Wanted” his favorite shows.

Ahilan Nadarajah The Sri Lankan, who learned some English from fellow inmates during 4½ years in detention, is eager to embrace all things American: He has visited Wal-Mart (“beautiful!”), a 99-cent store (“amazing”) and a fast-food restaurant for a burger (“pretty good”).

At 26, the young farmer who fled civil war has begun a new life in this northern Los Angeles suburb, which has acquired the nickname “Sri-Lancaster” because of its growing popularity with Sri Lankan immigrants.

But freedom was a long time coming, and his legal troubles are not over.

Nadarajah was 21 when he left home for Canada, where he has relatives. He was smuggled on a circuitous route from Thailand to South Africa to Brazil to Mexico and, finally, he arrived at the San Ysidro Port of Entry, where he presented false documents and was arrested about six weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

He was granted asylum twice in the years that followed, but was held while the U.S. government appealed, alleging that he was a member of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a Sri Lankan rebel group. Nadarajah and his attorney say that is false, and that he was a farmer who does not come close to fitting the profile of a Tiger. He said he maintained his innocence even though Sri Lankan government troops beat and tortured him.

He was released from an Otay Mesa jail in March when the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals called his detention illegal and the government's arguments “patently absurd,” “baffling” and “implausible.”

Nadarajah is one of untold numbers of post-Sept. 11 detainees accused of ties to a foreign terrorist organization but never charged with terrorism. He is also one of the longest-held.

“I feel better than ever,” Nadarajah said during a recent interview at a Sri Lankan restaurant in Lancaster. “I get some fresh air. I want to eat good food. I feel like I'm into a new life. I feel happy. I get freedom.”

Nadarajah is far from being able to come and go as he pleases, however.

First, the government is weighing whether to appeal the 9th Circuit's decision on Nadarajah's release to the U.S. Supreme Court. Officials declined to comment further because the case is unresolved.

Second, the appeals court decision addresses the length of his detention but not the substance of his asylum case. In the asylum case, Nadarajah is awaiting a review by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who has the ultimate power to rescind Nadarajah's asylum grant.

Unlike independent federal judges, immigration judges work for the Justice Department and can be reversed by the attorney general. If that happens, Nadarajah's lawyer could appeal to the 9th Circuit again.

Ahilan Nadarajah In the meantime, Nadarajah posted a $20,000 bond paid by relatives in Australia, and he must check in with federal officials by phone daily and in person every two weeks. He is required to wear an electronic monitoring device on his ankle at all times. He is allowed to leave his apartment between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. on weekdays, and for just an hour, from 9 to 10 a.m., on Saturdays and Sundays.

So, Nadarajah spends a lot of time watching television in a small, two-bedroom unit he shares with three other young Sri Lankan immigrants. He does push-ups and sit-ups to pass the time. He walks to the Sri Lankan restaurant owned by his sponsor, a businessman he had never met until his release. The sponsor is covering the rent until Nadarajah can get a work permit and support himself.

The opinion issued by the 9th Circuit essentially endorsed his lawyer's view that Nadarajah is a troubling example of a government that has run afoul of the law by holding him so long without charges, on the basis of information from a questionable secret informant in Canada.

But the government maintains that Nadarajah is a dangerous operative for a violent terrorist group, sent to settle scores with enemies and raise money for a cause that jeopardizes the national security of the United States. Officials say he is a liar who committed fraud by presenting false documents at the border and then concocting a story about torture to gain legal status.

Remarkably, Nadarajah is upbeat despite his ordeal – a long jail term, post-traumatic stress disorder, suicidal thoughts, separation from family, culture shock, loneliness, restrictions on his freedom and the uncertainty of his future. During the interview, he smiled frequently.

“I didn't expect to be detained for so many years,” he said. “But my life has been saved by this country, and I'm grateful for that. Because they let me out, they have saved my life. They didn't send me back.”

The government case

The Sri Lankan government has been at war for two decades with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or LTTE, which seeks an independent state for ethnic Tamils. Human-rights groups have documented egregious violations by both sides, including kidnappings, torture and killings. The U.S. government designated the LTTE as a terrorist group in 1997.

When 23 Sri Lankans, including Nadarajah, tried to illegally cross the border a month after the Sept. 11 attacks, Special Agent Steven W. Schultz with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement found it troubling that they all had the same story. He suspected they might be Tamil Tigers.

Their asylum applications were almost identical – a red flag that they had been coached to lie, according to memorandums and testimony by Schultz in 2003 and 2004.

Nadarajah claimed he had been arrested three times starting in 1997 at age 17 by Sri Lankan government interrogators who burned him with cigarettes, put a gasoline-soaked sack over his head and beat him with pipes and rubber hoses while demanding that he confess to LTTE membership. Twice his mother bribed army officials to release him. Finally, the family decided he should flee the country, he said.

Schultz, who is also part of the Joint Terrorism Task Force in San Diego, testified during a 2004 hearing that he concluded Nadarajah and others were members of the Tigers based on information from a longtime “asset of unquestioned reliability” who worked for Canadian police. Also, he said, U.S. counterterrorism agents in Los Angeles received an anonymous letter that corroborated the asset's claims.

The informant was never identified and never testified at Nadarajah's various hearings because the government said identifying him would result in immediate assassination.

Schultz also testified that two other Sri Lankans in the group have since admitted “that absolutely everything in their declaration was false . . . including the declarations about being tortured in Sri Lanka.” They have since been deported.

Digging deep

Ahilan Arulanantham, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, is Tamil like Nadarajah. He said he became convinced that his client was telling the truth after some detective work.

A cousin of the lawyer visited Nadarajah's family and found that they live in a village inside the government-controlled zone in Jaffna, not the Tiger-controlled area. That meant it was highly unlikely that Nadarajah was a member of the Tigers. Arulanantham found an expert who verified that the village is in army-controlled territory.

The expert, Robert Oberst, a political science professor at Nebraska Wesleyan University in Lincoln, also testified that Nadarajah's story of arrest and torture is “very plausible” and that Nadarajah did not fit the profile of a rebel fighter.

Members usually do not finish high school because they train full time; they are taken away from their villages and have limited or no contact with their families; they do not work regular jobs because they are full-time Tigers with salaries paid by the LTTE, Oberst said. But Nadarajah never broke family ties, finished school and had a job as a farmer.

Arulanantham found the use of a secret informant problematic. On cross-examination, he hammered Schultz over his lack of knowledge about the informant, and Schultz acknowledged that he did not know how the informant came by his information. He also said he did not know whether the informant personally knew Nadarajah or whether the informant was an ex-Tamil Tiger with a motive to lie.

In closing statements to Immigration Judge Joseph Ragusa, government lawyer Janet Muller defended the agent's use of a proven informant, telling the judge, “The idea that we could never rely on a confidential source in terms of an investigative tool in finding out this information, if that's the case, we might as well all just put everything away, go home, and hand the keys over to the criminals and the terrorists.”

Still, Ragusa granted asylum, and a higher immigration court affirmed his decision. The case was referred to the attorney general for review in January.

So the wait continues.

Most Sri Lankan immigrants who come to California settle in the San Fernando Valley, but in recent years they have moved to the Lancaster area where real estate is more affordable, said Buddhika Ekanayake, vice president of the Sri Lanka America Association of Southern California. He estimated that about 40 Sri Lankan families live in Lancaster.

Nadarajah said he has big goals: Get a job. Learn English. Go to college. Maybe law school. A wife. Kids. U.S. citizenship. He wants to visit Las Vegas, Disneyland and Niagara Falls. He wants to make friends and jokes.

“I'm a nice person,” Nadarajah said. “I like to talk to everybody. I want to make funny. I want to be always smiling.”

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