Attorneys at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher L.L.P. continue to fight for asylum for their formerly detained client, a pro-democracy activist and torture survivor from Cameroon, who applied for asylum six years ago.
Flaubert Mbongo, an economist from Cameroon, fled his home country after being arrested, detained, tortured and threatened with death because of his involvement in a pro-democratic movement critical of the Biya regime. Unable to obtain valid travel documents from the Cameroonian government, Mr. Mbongo, entered with a false passport and was arrested and detained in a local county jail in Virginia. When he arrived at the airport, he did not realize that to avoid being returned to Cameroon, he was expected to express his fear of returning to INS inspections officers. Afraid that he would be deported (the equivalent of a death sentence) if his documents were found to be false, he maintained that his passport was genuine and that he had no fear of persecution. After finally admitting that his passport was false, Mr. Mbongo was held in INS detention while he petitioned for asylum.
Relying heavily on statements he made at the airport, an Immigration Judge found Mr. Mbongo not credible and denied his claim. By 1998, Mr. Mbongo had languished in jail for approximately two years and his appeal to the Board of Immigration Appeals had also been denied. Discouraged, he contacted Human Rights First for assistance. After reviewing the packet of materials Mr. Mbongo sent from jail and realizing that his plea was, as Washington Director, Elisa Massimino characterized it, “a message in a bottle,” Human Rights First accepted his case.
Before Human Rights First assigned him a volunteer attorney, Mr. Mbongo had filed a habeas corpus petition on his own behalf. The INS had opposed his petition and little time remained in which to file his responsive brief. Human Rights First assisted Mr. Mbongo in submitting a motion for an extension of time and then set about the task of placing the case with volunteer attorneys Jonathan Tycko and Seth Stodder of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher L.L.P. Tycko and Stodder quickly stepped up to the plate agreeing to assist Mr. Mbongo on a pro bono basis. The attorneys worked vigilantly on Mr. Mbongo’s case, filing a reply brief and later a petition for review to the 4th Circuit. Aware of the difficulty of winning an asylum case in the notoriously unfriendly 4th Circuit, Mr. Tycko contacted several reporters to try to bring media attention to the Mr. Mbongo’s case. Predictably, the 4th Circuit denied Mr. Mbongo’s appeal, however, this was only a temporary setback for the team.
In December 1999, Tycko and Stodder’s relentless persistence finally paid off when Mr. Mbongo was paroled from jail after over several long years of detention. Three years after reaching the United States, Mr. Mbongo was finally free.
Approximately one year after making contact with reporters, Rick Tulsky, a reporter researching a story on detained asylum seekers, contacted Jonathan Tycko. Although Mr. Mbongo was no longer detained, Tycko convinced Mr. Tulsky to meet with his client. Following the meeting, Mr. Tulsky, captivated by what he had heard, took the extraordinary step of flying to Cameroon to verify Mr. Mbongo’s story. In Cameroon, Tulsky found evidence that collaborated Mr. Mbongo’s claim, thus disavowing the credibility issue raised against him by the immigration judge.
Upon his return, Rick Tulsky contacted the Immigration Service to inform them of his findings and then featured Mr. Mbongo in an article that described his journey. As a result of the extraordinary efforts of Jonathan Tycko, Seth Stoddard, Rick Tulsky and Mr. Mbongo himself, the Immigration Service agreed to file a motion to reopen in Mr. Mbongo’s case before the Board of Immigration Appeals. The Board remanded the case to the Immigration Judge who held a de novo hearing in November 2001. Flaubert Mbongo’s merits hearing will take place in June 2002.