Man held as security risk released; says he was tortured in Sri Lanka

By Maria Sacchetti
Globe Staff / July 10, 2010

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A native of Sri Lanka who fled a bloody civil war in his homeland only to end up in a Boston jail for almost two years was released yesterday after a court battle to win his freedom.

Baskaran Balasundaram still faces deportation and will return next month to US immigration court in Boston to argue that he should be allowed to stay in the United States, said Laura Rótolo, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, who fought for his release.

“The release is long overdue,’’ said Rótolo, who is also working on his case with the Political Asylum/Immigration Representation Project in Boston and the Asian Law Caucus in San Francisco. “There’s a long way to go in order for him to feel like he’s safe, and he’s not going to be returned to a place where he feels like he’s going to be killed or tortured.’’

The 27-year-old farmer had entered the United States on July 14, 2008, using a fake passport, saying he was a victim of torture and kidnapping in Sri Lanka. Based on his account, a federal immigration judge granted him asylum in February 2009.

But immigration officials refused to release him from the Suffolk County House of Correction, saying he was a security risk who provided material support to a terrorist group in Sri Lanka.

Balasundaram said he was the group’s captive. He said the Tamil Tigers, which the United States and other countries have designated as a terrorist organization, kidnapped him and forced him to live like a slave. After he escaped, he said, the Sri Lankan Army caught him and tortured him repeatedly.

US Immigration and Customs Enforcement confirmed that he was released yesterday, but had no other comment, said agency spokesman Harold Ort.

In April, the ACLU filed suit in US District Court seeking release of Balasundaram. But in June, two days before Judge William G. Young was to rule on whether to release him, the Board of Immigration Appeals revoked Balasundaram’s asylum, putting him at risk of deportation.

Rótolo said she is appealing the board’s decision. Balasundaram will return to immigration court in Boston Aug. 10 to argue separately that he should not be deported under the UN convention against torture. “We feel he has a really good case and that if he were sent back, he would be tortured,’’ she said.

The US immigration agency’s decision to release him should bolster Balasundaram’s case, she said. “Clearly they have no security concerns about him if they’re letting him go on his own.’’

Last month, after the board revoked Balasundaram’s asylum, Young granted the government three months to decide whether to deport him. But Young questioned the government’s treatment of the case, saying officials acted as if the immigration judge’s findings on asylum were “of no consequence whatever.’’

“This court disagrees,’’ he wrote.

Maria Sacchetti can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @mariasacchetti.

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