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The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has granted the petition for review of an Ethiopian man who was falsely accused of terrorist activity and tortured by the Ethiopian government. The case offers an important precedent for individuals fleeing countries whose governments use unsubstantiated terrorist allegations as a pretext for targeting certain racial and ethnic groups for persecution.
 
“This guidance is especially timely as the world watches the events unfolding in Turkey,” said Lisa Koop, associate director of legal services for Heartland Alliance’s National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC) and co-counsel in the case. “It recognizes that arbitrarily assigning the ‘terrorism’ label to an individual or group of people cannot justify human rights violations.”
 
“This ruling clarifies Fifth Circuit precedent and directs immigration judges to consider all the possible reasons for someone’s persecution, and not simply deny asylum when a government claims it is investigating terrorism,” said Sara Ramey, staff attorney at RAICES and co-counsel in the case. “Governments cannot be allowed to whitewash torture by slapping the terrorist label on whoever they happen to not like.”
 
In its ruling, the Fifth Circuit agreed that the immigration court and the Board of Immigration Appeals had erred in ignoring the likelihood that the Ethiopian government targeted and tortured the applicant for pretextual reasons of race, family association, and imputed political opinion. Where a persecutor government arrests someone on the pretext of a legitimate investigation into terrorism, that person may still qualify for asylum. The Board of Immigration Appeals had upheld the immigration court’s denial of asylum on the theory that the asylum seeker was tortured during a legitimate investigation of separatist activity. But the record in the case shows that Ethiopia consistently abuses the human rights of ethnic minorities and targets them for this kind of mistreatment.
 
The asylum seeker, whose case remains under seal to protect his safety, is represented by pro bono counsel at NIJC, RAICES, and Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP. His case now returns to the Board of Immigration Appeals for reconsideration based on the federal court’s ruling.