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Tibetan nun detained for six months { February 3 2004 }

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'This Is the First Time I Saw the American Sky'
Tibetan Nun Freed Pending Appeal

By Carol Morello
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 3, 2004; Page B01

A Buddhist nun from Tibet, detained for almost six months after she arrived in the United States without identification papers, has been released from jail pending a government appeal of her request for asylum.

The 30-year-old nun, who is known as Sonam, spent the weekend after her Friday night release meeting with other Tibetans living in the Washington area, eating pizza at an area restaurant and shopping for winter clothes, said Sonam Singeri, a translator and broadcaster who has invited the nun to stay in her studio apartment in Washington.

"This is the first time I saw the American sky," Singeri said the nun, who speaks no English, remarked when she awoke Saturday morning. "Now I feel I am in America."

Her case has attracted the attention of human rights activists, who say she symbolizes a problem many immigrants face, and Tibetan freedom activists, who say she illustrates the religious persecution faced by Buddhists in China. A recent report by Human Rights First said thousands of asylum seekers such as Sonam have been jailed for long periods after arriving in the United States.

In mid-January, more than 22,800 foreigners facing deportation or awaiting asylum hearings were under detention, according to the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees their custody. More than half were in county jails and other contracted facilities.

Sonam, the nun, was paroled Friday night from Riverside Regional Jail outside Richmond, where she had been kept since she flew into Dulles International Airport in August and asked for asylum. Because she could not document her identity, she was taken into custody and sent to the regional jail in Hopewell.

In a jailhouse interview with The Washington Post last month, Sonam said she fled her home village near Mount Everest after seeing family members tortured and friends imprisoned for their faith. She lived three years in Nepal, but fled again when the government began sending Tibetan refugees back to China.

In November, a federal immigration judge granted Sonam asylum in the United States, but a Homeland Security lawyer said the case was being appealed because her sojourn in Nepal may mean she did not need to come to the United States to avoid persecution. Under the terms of her release, she must check in twice a month with the Department of Homeland Security until a final ruling on her status is made by the Board of Immigration Appeals.

Zhanna Snelbecker, her attorney, said no reason was given for Sonam's sudden release. She said several of the other female inmates in the jail cried when Sonam left her cell and pressed their addresses and phone numbers into the nun's hands, inviting her to visit when they are released, too.

Homeland Security spokesman Bill Strassberger declined to comment on a specific case but said all cases are routinely reviewed.

"Any question of continued detention is always reviewable," he said. "If they're able to establish identity, they're no danger to the community or [not] a flight risk, they can be released pending appeal."

John Ackerly, president of the Campaign for Tibet, has asked the group's members to urge their representatives in Congress to stop the appeal.

"If anyone should not be a threat in this country, it's a Tibetan nun," he said.

Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.) praised the decision to release Sonam and said he supports her amnesty request.

"I'm completely convinced she's legitimate and would be no terrorist threat to the United States," he said.

2004 The Washington Post Company

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