Lawyer for fugitive Afghan soldiers says US fighting bid for release
BATAVIA, N.Y. — The lawyer for three Afghan soldiers who disappeared last month from a military training camp on Cape Cod said Wednesday that federal officials are fighting their bid to be released from jail as they seek asylum.
“They’re not a security risk at all,” their lawyer, Matthew Borowski, said after the soldiers appeared at brief hearings in the Department of Justice’s immigration court. “They went through the right process of coming here legally and seeking asylum, and they shouldn’t be kept in detention in a prisonlike setting here.”
The three soldiers — Major Jan Arash, 48; Captain Mohammad Nasir Askarzada, 28; and Captain Noorullah Aminyar, 30 — appeared in the Batavia immigration court in upstate New York for the first time Wednesday since their arrest Sept. 22 while attempting to cross into Canada to seek asylum. They are charged only with violating the terms of their visa, a civil offense, their lawyer said.
In interviews with the Globe Tuesday, the soldiers said they feared death threats from Taliban insurgents and reprisals from their own government. The men said they fled because they feared US officials would not grant them asylum. They paid taxi drivers more than $1,600 to take them from the Cape to the Canadian border, where officials returned them to the United States.
Borowski, a Buffalo lawyer handling the case for free, said he had hoped immigration Judge Steven Connelly would release the soldiers on bail Wednesday. Instead, he said, he wound up asking the judge to postpone the hearing so he could prepare, after it became clear US Immigration and Customs Enforcement opposed granting bond.
Marvin J. Muller III, the immigration prosecutor, declined to comment after the hearing. In court, he asked the judge to make the continuance brief. Connelly continued the three cases to Oct. 8.
The hearing capped an embarrassing series of events for US and Afghan officials. The soldiers are among five Afghan officers who vanished last month from training to improve their skills fighting drugs, terror, and other crimes in Afghanistan. The Central Asian nation, which inaugurated a new leader this week, is considered extremely dangerous.
A week before the soldiers disappeared from Cape Cod, two Afghan police officers skipped out on a Drug Enforcement Administration training session in Virginia. They were later found in Buffalo and have since returned home.
The Embassy of Afghanistan has expressed a hope that the three Afghan soldiers would return to their wives and children. On Wednesday, the Afghan government did not send a representative to the hearing and did not respond to requests for comment.
To qualify for asylum, the soldiers must show they fear persecution based on their race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular group that faces persecution.
Immigration lawyers said the soldiers could argue for asylum based on their support for American soldiers, fears of the Taliban, and even the publicity surrounding their cases.
“These aren’t just any soldiers,” said Matthew Kolken, a Buffalo immigration lawyer who is not involved in the case. “These are soldiers that have been invited to the United States to participate in an exercise by the American government, which means they are more at risk to be targeted by the Taliban upon their return.”
Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, urged the federal government to thoroughly investigate the Afghans’ cases.
“These guys may be fine, or they may be dangerous,” she said. “I don’t have faith in our asylum system to really determine that, and that’s very concerning.”
She added that agencies hosting similar trainings, such as the DEA or Camp Edwards, should monitor visitors’ whereabouts more closely in future. “This strikes me as a failure in supervision on the part of their sponsoring agency, the people who were responsible for them,” she said.
But Lieutenant Colonel James Sahady at Camp Edwards, which hosted the training camp, said the rest of the 200 participants from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Mongolia returned home. “Nobody else attempted to defect,” he said.
Asylum seekers from Afghanistan have soared in recent years, according to the United Nations, with Afghans topping the list of those seeking asylum globally in 2012; they now rank third behind Syria and Iraq. Fewer obtain protection in the United States, partly because North America is harder to reach. Last year, 113 Afghans received asylum in the United States.