One of two Indian hunger-strikers released from detention

indica News Bureau-


One of the two Indian origin immigrants who had been on hunger strike for 74 days until the middle of last month at  Otero County Detention Center in New Mexico, won a temporary release on Sept 26, news reports said.

Ajay Kumar, 33, from the northern Indian state of Haryana, had been on hunger strike with Gurjant Singh, 34, from neighboring Punjab, demanding that they be freed from detention pending a decision on their appeals for asylum in the United States.

Both men are seeking political asylum in the United States and had been in detention for over a year, mostly at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center in Otero, New Mexico, after crossing over from Mexico and turning themselves into the Border Patrol.

Kumar, who had lost a third of his weight and was force-fed on court orders, walked away from the detention center with a tracking device around his ankle, one of the terms of his release.

As he left the center with bowed head and hands folded in the traditional namaste, Ajay Kumar was accompanied by human rights activists who had been galvanized by medical personnel force-feeding him. The painful procedure involves pumping liquid food into the stomach via a tube through the nose.

Both Kumar and Singh said the procedure was not just painful, but also humiliating as it was carried out in the presence of other hunger-striking detainees.

ICE officials agreed to a deal in which Kumar and Singh resumed eating on the promise that they would be released, according to their lawyers. The men began eating again Sept 21 and were kept under medical observation.

Kumar said he felt “very good” though he lost nearly 50 pounds (23 kg) during his hunger strike, dropping from 150 pounds (68 kg) at the start of his strike to 107 pounds (48 kg). He said he had regained about 10 pounds (5 kg) but still feels pain.

Both men began their hunger strike July 8 at the Otero center after rejection of their asylum claims and denial of bond. Both say the judge did not consider the facts of their cases individually.

“This immigration judge said, ‘All of these Indian asylum claims are incredulous. I don’t believe them’,” said attorney Linda Corchado, who represents Kumar, at a press conference. “It is damning. You expect at least some level of weighing the facts.”

Kumar said he was involved with an opposition party in Haryana which is ruled by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). That resulted in him being beaten up twice by BJP workers, including an attack that left him bedridden for more than a month, according to a doctor’s note he included in his application for asylum.

Kumar also claimed that his sister was the target of an acid attack while his father was murdered while Ajay himself was in detention in the US. His attorney Corchado said it was difficult to bring corroborative evidence to prove the claims while he remained in detention.

A month into their hunger strike, Kumar and Singh were transferred from the Otero facility to El Paso, where there is a medical wing that has become a hub for force-feeding hunger strikers in ICE custody.

US District Court Judge Frank Montalvo had granted permission to force-feed — a practice rejected by global human rights groups and medical ethics guidelines — saying he had no other choice or the men would die.

“In this case, Respondent (Kumar) is facing too great a risk of organ failure, muscle atrophy, and death,” Montalvo wrote in a Sept 12 order authorizing force-feeding.

Montalvo’s order also said ICE’s duty is not just to “keep the Respondent alive” and that the agency should take hunger-strikers to an independent doctor before asking for a court order.

Kumar will live with a human rights advocate in Las Cruces, New Mexico, while he regains his health and pursues his appeal with the US Board of Immigration Appeals. Singh has also challenged the rejection of his appeal for asylum and sought a new hearing with “a fair and impartial judge”.

Their sponsor, Margaret Brown Vega, is a volunteer with Advocate Visitors with Immigration Detention, a group that helped Ajay Kumar secure a lawyer and pushed for his release. She said she wished ICE had released Kumar sooner.

“This is a decision that has always been at ICE’s discretion,” she said. “They could have decided to do this long ago. Why they waited this long I don’t know.”