Political Asylum

High fives and smiles make their way around a group of people leaving Courtroom 4 of Boston’s Immigration Court. Primo Fontana, one of three lawyers, smiles and says to his client: “Congratulations, five years is a very long time to wait.” He then turns to his associate, Paul Ham, and grins, telling their client: “This guy did a very good job out there!”

Ham and Fontana, as well as Anita Agajanian, lawyers for DLA Piper, have just finished a pro bono case granting their client political asylum.

Their client is Ms. N., a 59-year-old woman who wished to withhold her identity to protect her family back home. She fled to the United States from her home outside the Ugandan capital of Kampala in 2006 after having been arrested and tortured for her political activism against President Yoweri Museveni and his 25-year-rule, Ham said.

Ms. N smiles from cheek to cheek. She wears a floor-length, square-necked turquoise Gomesi, the national dress of Ugandan woman, tied with a traditional silken silver sash that rests on her hips. The ensemble fits her bathykolpian figure, and she can barely contain her jubilance, offering her hand for another round of high-fives to Fontana, Ham and Agajanian.

“She’s an amazing woman,” Ham says, “she comes off very sweetly, and she’s a little punk on the inside.”

In quick, hushed Lugandan, Ms. N speaks through her friend and translator Olivia, who chose to withhold her surname for similar reasons.

“I’m grateful to the U.S. government for the opportunity to live in safety,” Olivia translates, “and for the pro-bono assistance provided by the PAIR Project!” Ms. N’s eyes light up as she nods.

The PAIR Project provides assistance in connecting asylum seekers with pro-bono attorneys, Ham said.

In the early 80s, Ms. N helped financed and recruited rebels against Milton Obote’s regime, according to Ham. In 1982 she was imprisoned and sent to Uganda’s notorious Luzira Maximum Security Prison. She remained there for three years until Obote was overthrown in 1985. Six months later, Museveni and his National Resistance Army took power after the ensuing “bush war.”

After her release from Luzira, Ms. N kept a low profile, Ham said over the phone. But in 1986, she was elected by her peers as a Woman’s Representative to the LC1 level, or Local Council where she reported the conditions of women and children in her village.

Through her representative role, she worked with village banking and micro-financing groups such as The Foundation for International Community Assistance (FINCA), creating a craft business that sold jewelry, blankets, dyes and prints of fabrics, among other items.

Ms. N’s business enterprise brought her to America for an African Growth and Opportunities Act (AGOA) Forum in 2002, but when she returned, villagers began reporting unfair land reform policies under Museveni, said Ham. Over the following years, she reported these issues to the next level of authority, but it was this branch of government that was responsible for the illegitimate reforms, and she was labeled in opposition to Museveni’s government for calling them out.

It was roughly a year before Uganda was to have its election, and after reporting this to higher officials, Ms. N was visited by officers from the Internal Security Organization (ISO), the Ugandan intelligence agency. They questioned her, Ham says, and in her own self-defense, she denied opposition to Museveni. But she began to question his rule.

“She has no fear of stepping up to what’s wrong,” Ham says, recalling her accounts of the cross-examination.

In January 2006, ISO officers kidnapped Ms. N and took her to a “safehouse,” in reality, an unregistered prison. Thrown into the basement with 30 to 40 other people she was beaten to the point where she couldn’t walk. “The smell was unbearable,” Ham says of Ms. N’s abduction. “There were dead bodies on the floors and little to no light.” She was released a week later with the threat of death were she to continue her activism against Museveni.

It was public intimidation similar to Baathist Iraq; spreading fear through the accounts of those who survived the torture. When Ms. N returned to her home and children, she told other villagers what had happened, and how she felt about the political climate. Three to four days later, ISO officers arrested her again, bringing her to a different house where they kept and beat her for over a month. When she was released, she was given the same ultimatum: ‘If we catch you again, we will kill you.’

She fled to the United States in October that year.

Her asylum granted, Ham says Ms. N’s primary focus now is to get her green card then get asylum status for her children, still in Uganda. With only a few years of primary school education, it is hard for her to find a job; although she is learning English, and has found occasional work in elderly care. She is still recovering from the psychological affects of trauma and torture, but Ham expressed confidence in her future.

“I have no doubt that she’ll do amazing things,” he says. “She truly is a force of nature.”


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