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Records reveal Russian asylum-seeker who died in Tacoma claimed to be a shaman fleeing prison torture

UPDATED: Sun., Jan. 6, 2019

By Nina Shapiro Seattle Times

On a late November day, Mergensana Amar left Russia on an Aeroflot flight to Paris. He had a long trip ahead.

He flew on to Cancun, Mexico, stayed a couple nights in a hotel, boarded a plane bound for Tijuana, spent one more night in a hotel, and finally walked to the San Ysidro pedestrian entrance at the U.S. border.

There, according to immigration court records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, he told officials he sought asylum – and military training he could take back to his home in the Siberian republic Buryatia and use to overthrow Russian rule. Then 39, he claimed to have been tortured in prison and attacked by racist skinheads who operated with impunity.

“The United States has the highest belief in human rights,” he told an official who interviewed him at the border, explaining that he also came to the U.S. for financial opportunities and intended to stay with a Buryat friend living in New Jersey.

Almost exactly a year later, this past November, he died after trying to hang himself inside the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, where he was taken while his asylum case was pending due to his lack of entry documents. His death – currently under federal investigation – was one of 74 since 2010 inside the nation’s detention facilities for immigrants facing deportation proceedings, and underscored concerns about conditions, particularly medical and mental-health treatment.

The records reveal new details about a man who has remained largely mysterious, despite a flurry of media coverage about his death, and questions from immigrant-rights activists, U.S. senators, members of Congress and Gov. Jay Inslee.

Recordings of Amar’s court hearings, transcripts of interviews with federal officials and related documents also offer a rare look at asylum deliberations, normally a closed process. The government said it made an exception in this case because Amar is deceased, minimizing privacy concerns.

The records shed light, as well, on the often harsh treatment of minorities and dissidents in Russia.

Mergensana Amar – or Amar Mergensana, as he sometimes called himself – was given a different name at birth. He changed it for religious reasons, he told an asylum officer during an initial “credible fear” interview in San Ysidro on Dec. 3, 2017, which he passed.

For 10 years, he had been a “shaman,” or leader of the ancient religious practice known as Shamanism – a role that typically involves communicating with the spirit world, followers believe, in a trancelike state.

Buryatia, a crescent-shaped land that wraps around Lake Baikal and borders Mongolia, was part of the Soviet Union during Amar’s childhood. Shamanism was then outlawed, he told the asylum officer, seeming to imply that the Soviet Union’s dissolution emboldened him.

He fared reasonably well in some ways under the new Russian regime, judging by the account of his life he gave during that Dec. 3 interview and to a border official the day before. Amar got an economics degree from the East Siberian State Technological University, and went on to own a business fixing and selling cars.

His hobbies included wrestling and a Russian martial art called Sambo. He traveled extensively, including 10 times to Mongolia and six times to South Korea on trips that lasted from two weeks to a month.

In other ways, though, he found the new Russia intolerable.

In 2015, he said, he was riding a train to Moscow when he ran into six or seven nationalist skinheads – a rampaging force in recent years. Like others from his region, Amar had Asian features.

During an Aug. 7 court hearing, Amar, in a Tacoma courtroom and speaking through an interpreter, said the skinheads put on masks and took out pipes and bats. Calling him a “churka,” a derogatory term for nonwhites meaning wooden stub, they hit him until he dropped to the floor, then started kicking him.

“Hit the churka,” he said bystanders urged.

The attack gave him a hematoma under his left eye and bruises on his arms, legs and back, he said. But a medical clinic refused to treat him and police declined to investigate, both saying he should go back to where he came from and take care of things there.

He eventually did return to Buryatia, where he said he joined a secret independence party.

Just as in the Soviet Union, he said, his religion was banned by Russian officials. He was also upset that schools did not teach the native language, a dialect of Mongolian. And local nature, he lamented, was dying along with the culture, due to pollution in the lake and destruction of the forest.

In 2016, he said, he took part in a small protest. Within minutes, he was arrested. He spent a month in jail, by his account.

He said officials put him and fellow protesters into what he referred to as the “bird” position. “They would put on handcuffs behind our backs and they pulled us up with a wheel and rope that was attached to the ceiling,” he said in the August court hearing. “It hurt a lot. We yelled loudly.”

The officials, he said, also hit him with bags of sand and a small bat that injured one of his fingers.

He spoke in a strong and steady voice at the hearing, as at two short ones before it, betraying no hint of the life-ending despair that must have come later.

Amar’s lawyer, Liya Djamilova, submitted more than 300 pages of documents and news reports to the court testifying to human-rights abuses in Russia. The filing included a voluminous U.S. State Department report describing “extrajudicial killings, including of LGBTI persons in Chechnya; enforced disappearances; torture that was systematic and sometimes resulted in death and sometimes included punitive psychiatric incarceration; harsh and life-threatening conditions in prisons; arbitrary arrest and detention” and more.

Also in the lawyer’s packet were apparent translations of apartment rental ads. Slavs only, many specified, referring to the dominant, white ethnic group in Russia. Citizens of “Asian republics, please do not disturb!,” one read.

Asylum cases are difficult, said Dana Leigh Marks, president emeritus of the National Association of Immigration Judges. That’s why, she said, the association has resisted pressure from the Trump administration to speed up adjudication in Justice Department-run immigration courts and argued that those who appear there need access to attorneys. There is no right to representation in immigration court.

The San Francisco judge, who once represented asylum applicants, explained in an interview that witnesses are often in short supply. So are verifying documents; prison guards don’t normally issue any attesting to torture.

Documentation of general country conditions are particularly helpful, the State Department reports. “Those are given a fair amount of weight usually,” Marks said.

At the same time, she said, such a report may not be enough to show that what’s described has happened “to you and you’re not stealing a story from the headlines.” A lot ends up resting on the credibility of the applicant.

In Amar’s August hearing, a Homeland Security attorney raised one apparent discrepancy – not about the alleged torture, racism or skinhead attack but about whether he signed any statement in prison. Amar said he didn’t when questioned by his lawyer. But in the interview with an asylum officer, the government lawyer pointed out that Amar said he wasn’t released until he signed a statement saying he wouldn’t participate in any more protests. (He later told the interviewer he also signed a “confidentiality agreement” promising not to talk about the protest.)

Judge David Anderson, presiding over the case from Utah by video and a former Homeland Security lawyer, asked Amar, “Why is your testimony different?”

Amar said he wasn’t asked to sign charging documents in particular – seeming to indicate, as his lawyer suggested, that’s what she had been asking him about.

Anderson, who took two recesses to listen to the lawyer’s questioning again, was not convinced.

He found the discrepancy “goes to the very heart of the respondent’s asylum claim.”

The judge said he might still have been swayed by other evidence. But the background reports submitted by Djamilova didn’t specifically name Amar, nor establish that he would be persecuted in Russia – the criteria for asylum – “as opposed to lesser forms of harm such as discrimination.”

And while the judge also considered photographs of Amar’s eye and finger injuries that were submitted, he said he had no evidence as to what caused them.

Denying asylum, Anderson ordered Amar deported to Russia. He had a month to appeal.

Amar soon went on a prolonged hunger strike in the Tacoma detention center, joining a wave of protests over allegedly inadequate food, $1-a-day pay to detainees who work and claims of abusive treatment by guards.

He was placed in medical isolation and was unable to access the law library, he wrote in an appeal signed Sept. 24, explaining why he missed the Sept. 6 deadline.

That was not a good enough reason, the appeals board wrote in a Nov. 2 letter, declining to take action.

That’s where the immigration court records on Amar’s case leave off.

They do not give other information about what happened in the detention center – whether, for example, a rope was found in his cell weeks before his death, as he wrote in a note to a lawyer checking on his welfare, and he was put into a cold, isolation cell without any clothes on. Nor do they say what medical and psychological treatment he received before he tried to hang himself on Nov. 15, leading to his being taken off life support at a Tacoma hospital nine days later.

Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General is investigating, and is considering an inspection of the detention center, according to a letter to Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, and Reps. Adam Smith and Pramila Jayapal, Democrats who contacted the office after Amar’s death.

The rest of his story is, for now, incomplete.

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