When a person who wants to live in Latvia cannot

  • 2001-06-21
  • Elina Cerpa
RIGA - If you visit Olaine Prison, don't expect swift attention. After waiting 45 minutes, a guard finally came to take me to the visitors' room where I was to wait for Maged Al Samerae. A short time later, a man about 50 years of age approached me. Having fallen prey to many illnesses in his time, Maged, who in reality is only 35, has a very long, sad tale about his time in Latvia.

Coming to Latvia to seek political asylum in 1995, he has since been dragged from institution to institution. He arrived in Latvia from Belarus in October without any personal documents – as many immigrants do in the hope that without personal documents it will be easier for them to start a new life. Shortly afterwards he was arrested in Daugavpils.

Because he fears people from his homeland may track him down in the Baltics, he refrains from giving any accurate personal information about himself to any person or organization other than Interpol, the international police organization.

He says he is afraid to leave the country because he has enemies outside, and that if he goes back to his country or people know his true identity he may be killed. Because of this, he has had little chance of receiving immigrant status.

Maged Al Samerae is an assumed name. He has refused to give anyone except Interpol his real name.

Tangled in the web of Latvia's confused immigration laws, Al Samerae has been shuffled around detention centers for immigrants all around the country for six years.

"When I came here I was in Gaizina Street (reception center for illegal immigrants or asylum seekers) for 23 days, then they took me to Olaine (prison and detention center for illegal immigrants) for eight months. After Olaine, I was relocated to the detention center in Aluksne.

"In Aluksne there was a period when they kept me for 13 days in a dark, tiny cell without any windows. I slept in a simple T-shirt on the concrete floor. There, for the first time, I began a hunger strike," says Al Samerae.

"From Aluksne I was in Kraslava (another detention center) for eight days and then again in Olaine for three days. After a while I refused to come out of my room. Six people took me out by force. Sometimes they would beat us. Time went on and on. I was taken again to Jelgava, and from there to Riga, to 7 Gaizina Street."

It was difficult for Al Samerae to keep a clear count of how many times he was taken to 7 Gaizina Street, used as a place to keep illegal immigrants. Today it is under reconstruction. He paints a horrific picture.

"We used to call 7 Gaizina Street 'the Gestapo.' One time I was there for a full six months. I lived in very bad conditions and it was there my health went completely downhill. Some people were trying to kill themselves. One man died of cancer and another hung himself because he could not get permission to see his children. Still nothing happened. I was waiting for some conclusion. I kept asking myself and my captors, 'What is my crime?' The cell where I was located had an iron door; I was banging my head on it. An officer came by only after two days. I begged him to give me a gun so I could kill myself, because the situation was so terrible. I went on hunger strike again, this time for 48 days," Al Samerae said, his eyes burning red with anger.

"This is a rather complicated case, because Al Samerae was not willing to cooperate with us," says Baiba Bieza, the director of the Center for Refugees Cases. "The facts he gave about himself were minimal. Sometimes he only replied, 'I don't want to talk about it.'"

In 1998 Al Samerae's request for asylum was refused. "Because of a lack of information, his case was not clear enough to obtain refugee status as defined by the Geneva Convention and Latvian immigration laws," says Bieza.

People who come to Latvia as immigrants, legal or illegal, either seek a better life or the path to one. Once they cross the border they are often deported back to where they came from. Because many of these people destroy their original documents prior to attempted entry, they often face complications pertaining to their immigration status once in Latvia.

Permanent residence permits may be received by people who, in accordance with the law On Asylum Seekers and Refugees in the Republic of Latvia, have been granted the status of refugee.

In Latvia, the citizenship and immigration department, responsible for making all decisions concerning who is allowed to stay, divides these people into three groups. In the first group are those who have received a residence permit and status of refugee in Latvia. The second includes those who are seeking asylum in another country and who are staying in Latvia while they wait for an answer.

The third group are illegal immigrants, people residing in the country without official documents or other state permission. These people are usually sent home after their backgrounds have been checked and confirmed that they are not eligible for any legal status.

Although the first asylum seeker's request in Latvia was filed in February 1998, some were here for years before that date waiting for requests to be dealt with. Since that time, there have been another 87 people who have applied. Of these, only seven people were granted a residence permit and refugee status.

Al Samerae was part of the second group prior to 1998 when his request for asylum was denied and he was put into the third group to be sent back home after the authorities clarify where exactly that would be.

Olafs Bruvers, director of the state-run National Human Rights Office, has met Al Samerae three times. "I met him for the first time in 1996. At that time there was a large group of illegal immigrants in Olaine Prison. We got a proposal from the High Commissioner for Refugees to urgently consider the status of the refugee law in Latvia. UNESCO members from Sweden interviewed all the waiting illegal immigrants and accepted all but 15, Al Samerae among them. I asked him why he didn't leave together with the others and he replied, 'Because I was wrongly accused by my compatriots of being a terrorist'," said Bruvers.

Later Bruvers turned to the Latvian citizenship and immigration department, which retorted with the same line, that Al Samerae was not a political refugee, more an economic or suspicious terrorist with a dangerous background.

After a while Bruvers received a letter from Al Samerae with the request, "Dear Mister Bruvers, please help me. I am still without a court sentence and would like to achieve legal status."

"I met with members of the department and asked them why we could not legalize this man. They did not reply, they did not know what to do. All they said was that he had no documents and that no other country wants him," says Bruvers.

At the end of 1999 Bruvers received one more letter from Al Samerae. He wrote that he was sure he would die soon, since his health was completely damaged.

Bruvers got together representatives from the immigration police, the citizenship and immigration department, a supreme court judge and the Gaizinu Street director.

"At the end of that meeting, we all came to the conclusion that if he gave us his real name we could try to apply for asylum or to legalize him," says Bruvers.

After some time, Interpol confirmed to Bruvers that all the information Al Samerae gave was true and that his past was not connected with political activities or murder. He was involved in economic affairs and is trying to steer clear of former colleagues.

"I would say that the law concerning these situations is totally wrong," Bruvers said. "The law doesn't state, for example, that if during six months the state institutions haven't found any evidence against an individual then that person should be released from arrest. These people could spend the rest of their lives in Olaine."

The director of the citizenship and immigration department, Martins Bicevskis, however, has already signed a resolution to deport Al Samerae to his country of origin. "There is no specific crime he has committed. Still Interpol found a murder and terrorism links in his background," Bicevskis told The Baltic Times.

These allegations were strongly denied by Interpol itself. "At this moment, information that Al Samerae was a terrorist has not been confirmed. He is not involved in any kind of international manhunt," said Juris Jasinkevics, head of the Interpol office in Latvia and a member of Interpol's European Committee.

"This is an absurd situation," said Edgars Endzelis, Al Samerae's lawyer. "Coming to Latvia was not something ambitious. He was just looking for a safer life. He was put behind bars without a court sentence. If a person chooses to live here rather than in his own country under circumstances like those surrounding Al Samerae's case, the authorities should reconsider."

In June, Al Samerae's lawyer appealed his deportation order at the Riga Central District Court. This case will be reviewed no later than November. "The (citizenship and immigration) department has no interest in reconsidering his case," Endzelis said. "They have ignored him for all these six years."