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.

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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.

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"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.

The so-called material support laws set out a broad definition of terrorist activity. As a federal court has pointed out, giving an alleged terrorist a glass of water would be enough to bar entry to the United States. Those laws have, at times, led to seemingly unusual results -- Iraqis who helped coalition forces and people who have paid ransoms to rescue kidnapped relatives have been denied asylum in the United States.

As a solution, the government has granted more than 7,000 exemptions to the laws, mostly to members of U.S.-allied groups, such as ethnic Hmong who helped U.S. forces in the Vietnam War, or to those who were forced under duress to help select terrorist groups in Colombia.

But the government has not decided to grant exemptions to those like B.T. who were forced to help other terrorist groups, the senior asylum official said, adding that the government was reviewing other organizations and may add them to the exempt list.

Security Risks and Terrorism

The official said the government was taking a "measured" approach to handling the cases and could not proceed without examining any security risks that could be created by granting the immigration cases.

As a result, advocates say the material support laws have still left people wrongly accused of aiding terrorism and left hundreds of asylum seekers and thousands of refugees in limbo. "They're looking at an indefinite holding pattern," said Melanie Nezer of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.

Among those whose cases are on hold are doctors who voluntarily help armed groups that are not listed by the State Department as terrorist organizations.

Easa, a doctor from Sudan, said he was told his asylum case may be denied because he voluntarily treated members of the Sudan Liberation Army, which has been fighting the Sudanese government since 2003.

For several months, in safe houses in the outskirts of Khartoum, Easa treated rebels from Darfur. "If I didn't help them, otherwise they could die of their wounds," he said. "From complications from their wounds, some of them bleed to death. They don't have access to public hospitals because of security reasons. They died of minor injuries."

The World Medical Association's International Code of Medical Ethics and the International Committee of the Red Cross say doctors should help the injured or sick regardless of the identities of their patients.

"I can't judge them by their political stance. Because I'm a doctor, I'm a professional doctor and I'm not a political," Easa said. "I have to help them. This is my duty. Even if there is somebody from the side of the government who was in need of my help, I would do it without looking at what he was doing."

After he was caught by the government, Easa claims he was twice held incommunicado for days, locked in a coffin-size cell. He says he was made to stand barefoot for hours at a time on a block of ice, holding bricks in his outstretched hands while government interrogators whipped him.

"I was hearing crying voices. I was hearing people screaming," he said.

Torture of a Health Care Doctor

He claims he still suffers from claustrophobia from being locked in his cell, which was too small to stand in. "That was the worst for me. I was happy when they take me out for torture," he said.

B.T. said that after his second arrest, he fled to Katmandu and lived with family members for more than a year before fleeing to the United States on a tourist visa.

The asylum office denied his application, saying his story was not believable, though an immigration judge overruled that decision, saying that he should be granted asylum becauase he acted under duress. The government appealed to the Board of Immigration Appeals.

In its appeal, the government pointed to several inconsistencies in B.T.'s statements, including that during the time he was allegedly tortured by the army, the government granted him several leaves of absence from his job and that he never sought help from the government after being kidnapped by the Maoists. The government also argued that he could have stayed in Katmandu without being at risk.

B.T. says that he "hates terrorists" and only did what he had to do to survive.

"The government would like to deny him asylum for the simple act of trying to allay the suffering of an injured human being, and I think that's remarkable in and of itself," said O'Neill, B.T.'s lawyer.

"The government's position is that duress and threat of imminent execution is no defense. It's insane."