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Ezeagwuna v. Ashcroft

April 14, 2003

GLORY OBIANUJU EZEAGWUNA, PETITIONER
v.
JOHN ASHCROFT, ATTORNEY GENERAL OF THE UNITED STATES, RESPONDENT



On Petition for Review from an Order of the Board of Immigration Appeals (INS No. 0090-1:A76 142 746)

Before: Becker, Chief Judge, Scirica, and Rendell, Circuit Judges.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Rendell, Circuit Judge

PRECEDENTIAL

Argued April 25, 2002

Panel Rehearing Granted on April 14, 2003

Submitted After Grant of Panel Rehearing on April 14, 2003

OPINION OF THE COURT

Glory Obianuju Ezeagwuna ("Ms. Obianuju"), a citizen of Cameroon, seeks political asylum and withholding of deportation. She claims to have been persecuted because of her membership in two political organizations in Cameroon that represent the interests of the English-speaking minority population. The Immigration Judge ("IJ") denied her application, and the Board of Immigration Appeals ("BIA" or "Board") dismissed her appeal. The BIA also denied Ms. Obianuju's motion to supplement the record with four additional pieces of evidence.

The BIA's dismissal was based on a finding that Ms. Obianuju had submitted fraudulent documents and therefore was not credible. The BIA relied almost entirely on a letter from the Department of State that contained the conclusions of an investigation in Cameroon. In an original opinion on appeal, we concluded that reliance on this letter denied Ms. Obianuju her due process rights and undermined the fundamental fairness of the administrative process. See Ezeagwuna v. Ashcroft, 301 F.3d 116 (3d Cir. 2002). We also concluded that a reasonable factfinder would be compelled to conclude that Ms. Obianuju was persecuted because of her political opinions and faces a clear probability of persecution if returned to Cameroon. We then found Ms. Obianuju eligible for asylum and ordered withholding of deportation, subject to the Attorney General's discretion. Because we viewed the record as sufficient, we declined to consider whether the BIA abused its discretion in refusing to reopen the record and remand to the IJ for it to consider additional evidence proffered by Ms. Obianuju.

The Attorney General sought panel rehearing in light of the Supreme Court's opinion in INS v. Ventura, 123 S. Ct. 353 (2002), urging that the BIA, and not this Court, should make the determination as to whether, based on the record absent the documents we found unreliable, asylum and withholding of deportation should be granted. We agreed with this view and vacated our prior opinion and judgment. In so doing, while the analysis in our amended opinion remains unchanged regarding the documents that we found untrustworthy, we will now also address whether the BIA should have permitted Ms. Obianuju to supplement the record with the proffered additional evidence. Because the IJ has not had the opportunity to determine Ms. Obianuju's eligibility for asylum based on the appropriate evidence, we will grant the petition for review, and remand to the BIA for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

I.

A. Background

Glory Obianuju Ezeagwuna, a citizen of Cameroon, seeks asylum in the United States. Prior to her alleged persecution she lived in Bamenda, a city in the Northwest Province of Cameroon. She is a member of the English-speaking minority population, French being the language of the majority. She claims to have been persecuted because of her political opinion, and she points to mistreatment resulting from her membership in two political groups representing the interests of this Anglophone population --the Social Democratic Front ("SDF ") and the Southern Cameroons National Council ("SCNC").

Ms. Obianuju provided a detailed account of her abuse in affidavits, testimony, and corroborating documents. Following is a summary of the account presented by Ms. Obianuju in her affidavit in support of her application for asylum.

Ms. Obianuju's parents and other family members were very active members of SDF. In 1994, Ms. Obianuju began participating in SDF activities, and in 1996, at the age of eighteen, she became an official member of SDF. Ms. Obianuju tells of three times that she was jailed and physically abused because of her political activism. The first incident took place in 1996 when she joined other SDF members in protesting the appointment of Francis Faie Yengo as the leader of the Bamenda Urban Council. Government police sprayed tear gas on the protestors and arrested them. Ms. Obianuju claims that she was then dragged through the gravel on her knees and taken by force to Bamenda Central Prison where she was beaten on the soles of her feet and on her knees with police sticks. Ms. Obianuju's parents retained an attorney, Robert Nsoh Fon, to obtain her release from prison and on the fourth day she was released on bail. Upon her release she visited a doctor, Dr. Nji, who applied ointment to her hands and knees, and provided her with painkillers.

Next, in January 1997, Ms. Obianuju and other students marched to protest a substantial fee increase for taking a university entrance exam only imposed in the English-speaking areas of Cameroon. Ms. Obianuju marched at the front of the group. The government police began beating the students with their belts and spraying tear gas in an effort to disperse the students. She was kicked in the stomach and then dragged by an officer through the gravel. In prison, she was further hit and kicked by the officers. Her attorney was able to negotiate her release from prison. After her release, Ms. Obianuju left the SDF and became a member of the SCNC. Although the SCNC did not hold demonstrations, its goals were otherwise similar to the SDF.

In March and April 1997 there were a series of attacks on police and civilian establishments in Bamenda. According to Ms. Obianuju, the government blamed the SCNC for the attacks, but she denies any involvement. Ms. Obianuju claims that a few weeks after the attacks the police entered her home at 10 p.m. while she was asleep and physically removed her from her home without providing any explanation. During the course of the family's struggle to protect her, a police officer cut her mother's hand with a knife. Ms. Obianuju was taken to prison and placed in a cell with other SCNC members where she remained for six days. During the first day she and the others were beaten with police sticks on the soles of their feet and on their knees. During the second day an officer removed her from her cell and attempted to rape her, but was stopped by another officer. He bit her on the chest and scratched her back with his nails, leaving scars. She was repeatedly kicked in the stomach and hit across her face during the remainder of her detention. When her lawyer sought her release, he was told that she was being imprisoned for the March and April attacks mentioned above. On April 30, she was released upon payment of 1,500,000 francs.

Upon release she was taken to a doctor, because she was discharging blood. She subsequently became more ill and underwent an emergency appendectomy because her appendix "had been destroyed" by the abuse she suffered. She remained in the hospital for thirty days thereafter.

On July 31, 1997, Ms. Obianuju's attorney informed her that the police had a warrant for her arrest claiming that she had been improperly released in April. She therefore traveled to Bafut, a city in the Northwest province, to stay with a family friend, George Moma. She remained in hiding there indoors until December 1998. She then obtained a fake passport in the name of George Moma's sister, Francisca Biwie Moma. She used this passport to fly to Jamaica in February 1999. She stayed with a series of new acquaintances in Jamaica for three weeks. At that time her return trip was scheduled, and she requested asylum from the Jamaican immigration office, but they denied her application and attempted to take her into custody. She again went into hiding. A Jamaican provided her with a fake English passport in the name of Rebecca Channon, and she left on a flight to Newark, New Jersey on August 13, 1999. Upon her arrival at Newark International Airport, United States immigration officers determined that the passport was false, and upon questioning by the INS, Ms. Obianuju sought political asylum. Ms. Obianuju was deemed inadmissible by the INS under sections 212(a)(6)(C)(i) *fn1 and 212(a)(7)(A)(i)(I) *fn2 of the INA ("Immigration and Nationality Act") because she entered the country with invalid documents, and she was detained and has remained in detention ever since. She seeks political asylum and withholding of deportation, and, in the alternative, relief under the Convention Against Torture ("CAT"). *fn3 She claims that Cameroonian authorities continue to look for her and believes that her well-being and even her life would be in jeopardy if she returned to Cameroon.

B. Proceedings Before the INS

Ms. Obianuju first appeared before the Immigration Judge ("IJ") on September 2, 1999 pro se. She subsequently obtained counsel, and a hearing on the merits was held first on March 3, 2000 and continued on May 9, 2000. Ms. Obianuju testified at great length and was cross-examined by INS counsel, Irene Feldman. Ms. Obianuju submitted a large number of corroborating documents, including affidavits and declarations of family, friends, and SDF members, SDF membership cards, and U.S. State Department Country Reports. At the time of the hearing, the IJ had before her 37 exhibits provided by Ms. Obianuju and the INS. Dr. David S. Kang, a family medicine practitioner who conducted a physical examination of Ms. Obianuju on November 9, 1999, testified on her behalf. He concluded that she was credible, in part because she did not claim that every scar on her body resulted from torture. Furthermore, the scars she claimed were caused by torture were consistent with the acts she claimed caused them, specifically, scars on her knees from being dragged through the gravel, a scar on her chest from being bitten, and a surgical scar on her abdomen resulting from her appendectomy. Ms. Obianuju also moved to admit Dr. Kang's affidavit. At the close of this hearing the IJ said:

I have spoken with, to both counsels. I need to, this matter has to be continued, of course, for the issuance of the oral decision. And of course Ms. Feldman is waiting response of the [forensic document laboratory] report regard, as to one document just recently submitted. Therefore, this hearing is adjourned for the 26th of May, at 1 p.m. in the afternoon. *fn4

On June 7, 2000, during a continuance of the May 26 hearing, the INS provided a two-page letter from John Larrea, Vice Consul of the Embassy of the United States in Yaounde, Cameroon (the "Larrea letter"). The Larrea letter sets forth in a summary fashion the results of an investigation conducted into five documents submitted by Ms. Obianuju: a medical certificate from her doctor in Cameroon; the arrest warrant; an application for bail; an affidavit by Ms. Obianuju's father; and, an affidavit by her attorney in Cameroon, Robert Nsoh Fon. The letter concludes that each of these documents is fraudulent. A copy of each document is attached to the Larrea letter with notations allegedly made by government officials setting forth why the document is believed to be fraudulent. No investigative report is provided, nor is there any information about the investigation or the investigator.

In order to respond to the letter, on June 16, 2000, Ms. Obianuju's counsel requested a 30-day continuance. She explained: "An additional 30 days would enable us to address the allegations in the June 7, 2000 letter from the United States Embassy concerning Ms. Obianuju's asylum application, and make any necessary motions with regard to the findings in that letter." The continuance was granted.

On July 27, 2000, Ms. Obianuju filed a motion in limine setting forth five reasons why the Larrea letter should be excluded: 1) no foundation was laid for Larrea's opinions, 2) the letter's admission would violate the due process requirement of fundamental fairness; 3) its admission would violate INS regulations prohibiting the disclosure of asylum applications to third parties; 4) the admission of evidence based on this type of investigation would frustrate future asylum proceedings; and, 5) the letter was not authenticated in accordance with INS regulations. As support for the motion, Ms. Obianuju included a July 26, 2000 affidavit from Milton Krieger, a scholar of politics in Cameroon ["first Krieger affidavit"]. *fn5 Dr. Krieger shared his detailed knowledge of Cameroon, particularly regarding the government's persecution of SDF and SCNC members, the U.S. Embassy's limited knowledge of the political situation in Bamenda, and the difficulty of authenticating documents in Cameroon. Finally, he explained that Ms. Obianuju's account of what occurred was credible and shared his opinion that if she returned there was "a significant probability that Ms. Obianuju would be severely harassed, beaten, tortured or possibly even killed."

On August 7, 2000, the INS moved for a continuance of the hearing set for August 9 in order to obtain an original of the Larrea Letter. On that very same day, August 7, counsel for the INS obtained a letter from Marc J. Susser, Director, Office of Country Reports and Asylum Affairs, United States Department of State (the "Susser letter"). The entire text of the Susser letter is set forth in the appendix to this opinion. Susser explained in his opening paragraph: "I am writing to forward the results of an investigation, by a Foreign Service post, of documents presented in support of the asylum application of [Glory Obianuju]. These documents were forwarded to us by your office." The Susser letter is simply a restructured version of the Larrea letter, utilizing almost the exact same language. Significantly, however, the referenced documents are not attached to the Susser letter.

Although the Susser Letter is dated August 7, 2000, it was not provided to the IJ or Ms. Obianuju's counsel until September 18, 2000, three days before the hearing date. *fn6 On September 18, the INS sent a letter to the IJ as a response to Ms. Obianuju's motion in limine. In addition to rebutting the arguments made in the motion in limine, the INS provided the Susser letter "since [Ms. Obianuju] has objected to the admissions of the letter from John Larrea." The INS contended:

In an effort to provide Your Honor with an original letter, the Service respectfully submits the more recent Department of State letter in lieu of the prior submission. To date, the Service has not received the original copy of the Larrea Letter. Although the respondent has questioned the integrity of the Embassy staff, it would be beyond the realm for the respondent to question the ...


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