Doctor May Be Denied Asylum for Treating 'Terrorists'

When Maoist rebels rousted B.T. from his bed late one night in November, 2000, blindfolded him and marched him from his village in Nepal to a remote hideout, he said he had no choice but to do what they asked.

Holding a gun to his temple, the rebels forced B.T., a nurse, to treat fighters injured in the insurgency against the Nepalese government, he said. "If I didn't do it, they would kill me," B.T., whose full name is being withheld because of privacy concerns, told "I did whatever they said."

Suspecting that he was a Maoist sympathizer, Nepalese soldiers detained him twice, beat him with the butt of a rifle and cut his hands with knives, he claims. Another detainee was shot in the head in front of him, he said.

Dr. Esam

B.T. fled to the United States in 2003 and was granted asylum by an immigration judge. But the Department of Homeland Security has asked to have him deported, arguing that by giving the rebels medical treatment, he was aiding terrorists.

The outcome of B.T.'s case is expected to determine to a large extent whether the government grants asylum to unkown number of foreign doctors and other medical professionals who try to come to the U.S. after they have treated members of armed groups.

Exactly how those doctors should be treated under the nation's broad anti-terrorism laws -- as professionals or terrorist sympathizers -- is subject to fierce debate. Though the government has recently been willing to make some exceptions to the so-called "material support" for terrorism laws, it continues to argue that, in most cases, doctors who treat members of armed groups are helping terrorists.

Dr. Esam

"The position of the Department of Homeland Security is that medical care constitutes material support" for terrorism, said a senior asylum official at U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services, a part of Homeland Security.

That position has outraged advocates and doctors, who say that medical ethics require doctors to help the sick or injured regardless of what side of a conflict they are on.

"Doctors are expected to provide treatment without making judgments about who the patient is," said Leonard Rubenstein, director of Physicians for Human Rights. "That's what their oath is, and it's been recognized by international law. The government shouldn't be on the side of punishing people for doing their duties."

The government has put those asylum petitions and others on hold while the Board of Immigration Appeals decides B.T.'s case, according to internal U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services documents and senior asylum officials.

Because his case is still pending before the board of immigration appeals, B.T. cannot petition to bring his wife and children from Nepal to the United States, said his lawyer, Brian O'Neill.

"Where is justice for me?" B.T. asked in an exlcusive interview. "I don't know. I cannot see any law in this world. Every day I'm crying. My wife is sick. Sometimes my kids are crying and I'm just listening. There's nothing I can do. My punishment is harder and harder, day by day."

B.T.'s case is also part of a wider debate on the scope of the government's broad anti-terrorism laws. Under those laws, refugees and asylum seekers can be denied admission to the United States for providing nearly any kind of support to armed groups, even if those groups have not been designated by the U.S. government as terrorist organizations.

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