U.N. official urges China not to deport North Korean escapees, who could face torture

Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in North Korea Tomas Ojea Quintana speaks during a news conference in Seoul, South Korea, June 21, 2019. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

By Josh Smith

SEOUL (Reuters) – China should not repatriate the increasing number of North Korean escapees it has arrested in recent months, because severe punishment faces those sent home, a U.N. human rights investigator said on Friday.

At least 30, if not more, North Korean escapees have been rounded up in raids across China since mid-April, families and activist groups told Reuters this month, in what activists have called a “severe” crackdown.

At the time, the Chinese foreign ministry told Reuters it was not aware of any arrests. Activists and lawyers say there is no sign yet that the North Koreans have been deported.

“Information suggests China may have recently strengthened the search for North Korean escapees in collaboration with the government of North Korea,” said Tomas Ojea Quintana, a U.N. special rapporteur for human rights in North Korea.

“Repatriated North Koreans are at great risk of serious human rights violations, including torture,” Quintana told reporters in the South Korean capital of Seoul.

“The government of North Korea criminalizes those who cross the border irregularly.”

Quintana said he had raised concerns over the fate of North Korean escapees detained in China, and discussed the issue with South Korean officials during his trip to Seoul.

Escapees may face particularly severe punishment, including being sent to political prison camps, if they intended to defect to South Korea or if they were helped by Christian groups, he said.

Quintana displayed an old lock that he had been given by a boy who escaped from North Korea.

“He gave me this lock as a symbol of the need to open up the country,” Quintana said.

The United Nations has previously raised concern over North Korea’s continued use of political prison camps, and Quintana said people “live in fear of being sent to them”.

The North Korean government plays a role in exacerbating the country’s food shortages, he added.

North Korean officials have adopted “failing economic and agricultural policies”, including central rationing systems plagued by shortcomings and discriminatory allocation, he said.

Climate conditions, infertile land, and the negative impact of sanctions had contributed to food insecurity, Quintana said.

“At the same time the government is not developing conditions where people can securely access food through markets without being criminalized.”

He said he supported the reopening of the Kaesong industrial complex in North Korea, which was a joint economic project with South Korea that has been shut down for several years.

The jobs provided to North Koreans at the factories there improved employees’ lives and as a human rights matter, the project should be reopened, Quintana said.

(Reporting by Josh Smith; Editing by Clarence Fernandez, Robert Birsel)

Associate of Sept. 11 hijackers to be deported from Germany after jail term

Moroccan Mounir El Motassadeq is escorted at Hamburg airport as he is released from prison in Hamburg, Germany, October 15, 2018, after serving a 15-year jail sentence for helping hijackers to organise the September 11, 2001 attacks on U.S. targets. REUTERS/Fabian Bimmer

BERLIN (Reuters) – A Moroccan associate of the Sept. 11 hijackers is being moved from a German prison in preparation for deportation after serving most of a 15-year jail term for helping organize the 2011 attacks on U.S. targets, authorities said on Monday.

Mounir El Motassadeq was a member of a group of radical Islamists based in the northern German port city of Hamburg who helped bring about the suicide attacks with hijacked airliners that killed nearly 3,000 people.

Handed the maximum sentence of 15 years in 2007 for being an accessory to mass murder, Motassadeq is one of only two men convicted to date of involvement in the plot.

“Everything is going according to plan,” said a spokesman for the state of Hamburg’s interior ministry, declining to give details, other than to say that Motassadeq’s release was permissible from Oct. 15 if he was deported immediately.

Photographs showed a man with covered eyes being led by two armed policemen to a helicopter. German media reported that he would be taken to Frankfurt to be deported to Morocco, where his family lives.

The spokesman in Hamburg could not say exactly when his sentence was due to end. German media have reported he was due to stay behind bars until November or early next year.

At his 2007 trial, his lawyers argued that Motassadeq knew nothing about the Sept. 11 plot. But prosecutors said he played a central role in suicide hijacker Mohammed Atta’s group by running the financial affairs of some cell members.

Authorities in Hamburg said they would confirm the deportation once it has taken place.

(Reporting by Madeline Chambers; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Man deported six times charged with murder in California bludgeonings

Ramon Escobar, 47, appears in a booking photo provided by the Harris County Sheriff's Office in Houston, Texas, U.S., September 27, 2018. Harris County Sheriff's Office/Handout via REUTERS

By Steve Gorman and Alex Dobuzinskis

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – A man who police said fled to California from Texas after being questioned in the disappearance of two relatives was charged on Wednesday in Los Angeles with bludgeoning eight men, three fatally, in a string of attacks aimed mostly at homeless victims.

Ramon Alberto Escobar, 47, an El Salvador native and convicted burglar who has been repeatedly deported from the United States, was arrested on Monday after he allegedly clubbed a sleeping man in the head with bolt-cutters in the ocean-front city of Santa Monica, authorities said.

Seven other men were similarly attacked in Santa Monica and Los Angeles earlier this month, according to the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office.

Police have said one victim was sleeping under a pier after a night of fishing and that most of the rest of the victims were homeless, including three men battered with a baseball bat in downtown Los Angeles on Sept. 16.

Two of those victims and the man attacked beneath the pier died of their injuries. Some survivors were left in a coma.

On Wednesday, the district attorney’s office formally charged Escobar with three counts of murder, five counts of attempted murder and four counts of robbery. If convicted of murder, he faces a minimum sentence of life without parole.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials said Tuesday that Escobar had been deported back to El Salvador six times between 1977 and 2011 and has six felony convictions for burglary and illegal re-entry. Police have said he spent five years in a Texas prison for burglary from 1995 to 2000.

Escobar in 2016 filed an appeal of his immigration case, which U.S. courts granted in December of that year, and he was released from ICE custody on an “order of supervision” in January 2017, ICE spokesperson Paige Hughes said by email.

Escobar, now jailed without bond, briefly appeared in Los Angeles Superior Court on Wednesday, but the arraignment was postponed until Nov. 8. No plea was entered.

Judge Gustavo Sztraicher granted a defense motion barring public dissemination of the defendant’s image, including by photograph or courtroom sketch drawing, so as not to prejudice potential witnesses who might identify him for prosecutors.

Escobar appeared expressionless and said nothing except to answer, “Yes, sir,” when asked if he agreed to the postponement.

Defense lawyers declined to speak to reporters.

Meanwhile, police in Houston said Escobar was a “person of interest” in the investigation into the disappearance of an aunt and uncle with whom Escobar lived before they were reported missing in late August by other relatives.

The aunt’s van was later found burned and abandoned in Galveston, Texas, according to Houston police spokesman Kese Smith.

Escobar was questioned by Houston homicide detectives on Aug. 30, but they lacked probable cause to detain him at the time, Smith told Reuters on Wednesday, adding that Houston detectives would seek to “re-interview” Escobar in California.

Hayes said Escobar “fled” Texas by car soon after he was questioned in Houston, arriving in Los Angeles on Sept. 5. The first attack police linked to him occurred three days later.

(Reporting by Steve Gorman and Alex Dobuzinskis; Additional reporting by Gina Cherelus in New York; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Lisa Shumaker)

How a mother’s tough choice gave her son a potential U.S. asylum advantage

Catarina Miguel, aunt of Yaiser, who was separated from his mother at the U.S. Mexico border and is in detention, is interviewed in the room she has ready for him at her home West Palm Beach, Florida, U.S., in this still image from video, taken August 10, 2018. REUTERS TV/Zach Fagenson

By Kristina Cooke and Reade Levinson

SAN FRANCISCO/WEST PALM BEACH (Reuters) – For two months in detention after being separated from her 14-year old son by U.S. border officials, Catalina Sales worried about how he was doing and when she would see him again.

On July 25, they were finally brought back together at a facility near El Paso, Texas. The reunion was happy but brief.

Sales, who entered the United States illegally on May 30, made a difficult choice: She refused to sign a paper agreeing that if she were deported, her son Yaiser would accompany her back to Guatemala. She wanted to give him the chance, she said, to pursue asylum in the United States even if she is sent back.

Because of that, she and her son were separated again after just two hours together, and he was sent back to the Florida children’s facility where he had previously been held.

The decision that kept them separated also gave her son a better chance of being allowed to stay in the U.S. legally, a Reuters analysis of data from the courts’ Executive Office for Immigration Review suggests.

FILE PHOTO: Immigrant children are led by staff in single file between tents at a detention facility next to the Mexican border in Tornillo, Texas, U.S., June 18, 2018. Picture taken June 18, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Blake/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: Immigrant children are led by staff in single file between tents at a detention facility next to the Mexican border in Tornillo, Texas, U.S., June 18, 2018. Picture taken June 18, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Blake/File Photo

More than 2,500 families were separated at the U.S.-Mexico border in the spring as part of a zero-tolerance policy toward illegal immigration that ended in June. By separating them from their parents, the government rendered the children “unaccompanied minors,” which conferred certain advantages on them under U.S. immigration law, including a different, more child-friendly asylum process not available to children never separated from their families.

Additionally, a network of immigration lawyers specializing in children often agree to represent unaccompanied minors for free. And should they fail at an initial hearing with an asylum officer, the children have the opportunity to present their claims anew before an immigration judge.

Overall, although this was not something Sales could have known when she made her decision, unaccompanied children from the so-called Northern Triangle of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras win their immigration cases more than twice as often as others from those countries, Reuters’ analysis found. In the last three years, 40 percent of unaccompanied children from the countries were allowed to remain in the United States compared to 19 percent for others from the countries.

There is no record of how many separated parents have opted for their children to pursue separate asylum proceedings even if it meant leaving them behind. But at least six other reunited families with Sales in El Paso on July 25 made the same decision she did, according to Taylor Levy, legal coordinator at the Annunciation House in El Paso, which is working with the parents.

Both Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Department of Health and Human Services, which arranges care for children in immigration custody, declined to comment on the Sales’ case.

On Thursday, a San Diego federal judge said the form given to separated parents to sign did not constitute a legally valid waiver of their children’s asylum claims and ordered their deportations temporarily halted until the issue was resolved. The form “was not designed to advise parents of their childrens’ asylum rights, let alone to waive those rights,” wrote Judge Dana Sabraw in his order.

‘HE WANTS A BETTER LIFE’

After being reunified that day in El Paso, parents and children were loaded on a bus and asked to sign papers agreeing to be deported with their children. Those who refused to sign, including Sales, were led off the bus, according to interviews with four detainees and a court filing, leaving their children behind.

Sales said that after speaking to Yaiser for two hours on the bus, she realized she could not sign papers that might forfeit her son’s chance to remain in the United States and study instead of returning to Guatemala, where they were unsafe and Yaiser had fewer educational opportunities.

“He told me that he wanted to stay, that he didn’t want to go back, but that he wanted me to stay with him…. I felt sad,” Sales told Reuters by phone from the immigration detention facility where she is being held. “The simple truth is he wants a better life.”

Sales remains hopeful that both of them will eventually be granted asylum and allowed to stay in the United States. If her asylum claim is unsuccessful, she hopes her son’s will succeed, and that he can live with his aunt and uncle, who have applied to sponsor him.

In an interview with Reuters from the Florida facility where he is being housed, Yaiser said that he and the other re-separated children on the bus that day were sad when their parents were taken away again.

“We started crying because we couldn’t say goodbye after we’d only seen them for a short time.”

Two other fathers on the bus with Sales told Reuters they felt pressured by immigration officials to choose the option of being deported with their child.

“They told us … this was the only option,” said one of the fathers, who spoke on condition that he be identified only by his initials, S.T.

At a July 31 congressional hearing, ICE official Matthew Albence denied that officials were coercing people into agreeing to deportation.

Albence told Congress that many parents want their children to stay in the United States. “A great many of these individuals do not wish to have their child returned home with them,” he said. “The reason most of them have come in the first place is to get their children to the United States” and many have spent their life savings to do so, he said.

The government said 154 parents had decided against reunification as of August 16, according to a court filing. The filing doesn’t include the parents’ reasons.

‘IT WOULD BE SAFER’

Another father on the bus, identified in court documents only by his initials J.M., spoke to Reuters about his reason for not agreeing to be deported with his 16-year-old son.

“The problem with Honduras is that they recruit them for gangs, and I didn’t want that for him,” he told Reuters from detention. “Of course, I would have preferred to be with my son, but I made that choice for his well-being. I have to accept that.” His son was returned to the Casa Padre youth shelter in Brownsville, he said.

During their reunion on the bus, Yaiser told his mother he wanted to stay in the U.S. to study and make her proud, Sales said. But he also told her he hoped she could stay with him because “it would be safer.”

Yaiser’s attorney, Jan Peter Weiss, visited him at the Florida facility on Saturday. “He is very sad,” said Weiss. “He asked about his mother every other sentence. ‘Is my mother alright? What do you think is going to happen to her?’”

Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, the law firm representing Sales, declined to comment for this story.

(Reporting by Reade Levinson in West Palm Beach and Kristina Cooke in San Francisco; Additional reporting by Salvador Rodriguez in San Francisco and Tom Hals in Delaware; Editing by Sue Horton)

U.S. says 463 illegal immigrant parents may have been deported without kids

Security officers keep watch over a tent encampment housing immigrant children just north of the Mexican border in Tornillo, Texas, June 20, 2018. REUTERS/Mike

By Tom Hals and Reade Levinson

(Reuters) – More than 450 immigrant parents who were separated from their children when they entered the United States illegally are no longer in the country though their children remain behind, according to a joint court filing on Monday by the federal government and the American Civil Liberties Union.

The absence of the 463 parents, which U.S. government lawyers said was “under review,” could impede government efforts to reunite separated families by Thursday, the deadline ordered by a federal judge. The filing did not say why the 463 parents had left the country, but government officials previously acknowledged that some parents had been deported without their children.

As of Monday, 879 parents had been reunited with their children, according to the filing.

About 2,500 children were separated from their parents after the Trump administration announced a “zero tolerance” policy in April aimed at discouraging illegal immigration. The policy was ended in June amid an international outcry about the government’s treatment of immigrant children.

U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw in San Diego ordered last month that the government had to reunite the children with their parents in a case brought by the ACLU.

On Monday, the government also said 917 parents were either not eligible to be reunited or not yet known to be eligible to be reunited with their child. That number includes parents no longer in the country as well as those deemed unsuitable because of criminal convictions or for other reasons.

Immigration advocates have expressed alarm about parents deported without their children, saying it can create problems with the children’s immigration cases.

“How can we go forward on a case if we don’t know the parent’s wishes?” Megan McKenna, spokeswoman for Kids in Need of Defense, told Reuters earlier this month.

While Monday’s report indicated progress with reunifications, the ACLU made clear its frustrations with the process. The rights group said it did not have a list of parents who signed a form electing to be deported without their child.

“These parents urgently need consultations with lawyers, so that they do not mistakenly strand their children in the United States,” the ACLU wrote in the court filing.

The ACLU asked Sabraw to order the government to turn the information over by the end of Tuesday.

The government said it had cleared an additional 538 parents for reunification pending transport.

(Reporting by Tom Hals in Wilmington, Delaware, and Reade Levinson in New York; Editing by Sue Horton and Leslie Adler)