March 3, 2009 / 4:42 PM / 9 years ago

Supreme Court rules for Eritrean asylum seeker

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - If an asylum-seeking refugee persecuted someone overseas, U.S. government officials deciding their fate can consider whether the refugee was coerced to participate, the Supreme Court rule on Tuesday.

The justices overturned a U.S. appeals court ruling that the issues of coercion, motivation and intent were irrelevant in considering an asylum request.

The high court’s decision was a victory for Daniel Negusie, who had been denied asylum in the United States because he had served as a guard in an Eritrean military prison where inmates were tortured and killed.

Negusie argued that he had been forced under threat of death to act as a prison guard and that he never personally beat or killed anyone, although he did witness torture and had been ordered to mistreat prisoners.

Negusie eventually escaped from the prison and came to the United States, where he sought asylum.

Under U.S. law, asylum must be denied for anyone who participated or assisted in the persecution of any person on account of race, religion, nationality, ethnicity or political opinion.

Supported by human rights groups, Negusie’s attorneys argued that the law should apply to only those who voluntarily participate in persecution.

The Supreme Court ordered the federal government’s Board of Immigration Appeals to consider a new standard that takes into account whether the participation in the persecution was voluntary. Previously, a refugee’s motivation or intent were deemed irrelevant factors.

The court’s majority opinion was written by Justice Anthony Kennedy and joined in whole or in part by seven other justices. Justice Clarence Thomas was the lone dissenter. He said the law applied whether or not the participation in the persecution was voluntary.

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