Year-old international human rights law clinic at UC Berkeley is helping refugee clients win asylum

By Janet Gilmore, Public Affairs

Berkeley -Jigdol Ngawang vividly recalls the day that he and scores of other Tibetan monks solemnly stood before an icon of Buddha and made a simple declaration to each other: "If you die, I die."

Ngawang almost did die. He suffered police beatings, imprisonment and torture in efforts to fight for the right to maintain his Tibetan religious and cultural identity while under Chinese government rule.

Last year, Ngawang fled to the United States and soon became of the first individuals to turn for help to the University of California, Berkeley's new International Human Rights Law Clinic. A clinic student, with faculty supervision, represented Ngawang as he petitioned the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service for asylum - and won.

Ngawang's case is just one of several victories that has occurred since the clinic opened its doors - exactly one year ago - in January 1998.

So far, UC Berkeley law school students have represented refugee clients from countries all over the world including Mexico, Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, Egypt, Colombia, Bulgaria and El Salvador. Of the 15 asylum cases the students have handled, the INS has issued a decision on seven on them, and all seven resulted in victory.

"We are extremely pleased with the success of the clinic and the hard work and dedication of the students and the clinic staff," said Carolyn Patty Blum, the clinic director and a lecturer at Boalt Hall. "The International Human Rights Law Clinic provides valuable hands-on experience for our students and desperately needed assistance to victims of human rights abuses."

The law clinic is headed by Blum and another lecturer at Boalt Hall, Laurel Fletcher. Both women are experts in refugee and human rights law. Second- and third-year law students involved in the clinic also attend a seminar in which they practice lawyering skills, learn relevant laws and discuss the complexities of human rights practice.

Well before students meet with clients, they are taught the importance of understanding cultural differences and respecting clients' privacy. A psychiatrist also prepares students for helping clients who have been through emotional minefields. Blum and Fletcher attend the first meeting of student and client; after that, the two meet one-on-one.

Ngawang met with second-year law student Anastasia Telesetsky, 26. He told her his story of growing up in Lhasa, the capitol of Tibet. Ngawang, now 27, grew up under Chinese government rule of Tibet and knew little of the religious and cultural history that existed in Tibet before the Chinese government invasion in 1949.

He knew that his Tibetan parents would secretly pray to Buddha, but he did not know why they hid their prayers.

At the age of 12, Ngawang decided to become a monk. It was then, in the monastery, that his peers secretly told him the religious and political history of Tibet. Years later, as the Dalai Lama and other exiled Tibetans stepped up their push for human rights in Tibet, the monks decided that individuals inside Tibet would have to join the struggle.

"We said we were ready to die for our people, our culture, our identity," Ngawang said.

Soon Ngawang and other Buddhist monks and nuns were marching outside of a temple in Tibet, carrying signs and shouting that Tibet should be returned to Tibetans. Police descended on the crowd, kicking, beating and stunning the monks with electric shock instruments.

Ngawang watched in horror as a close friend lapsed into unconsciousness when a gunshot wound pierced his right temple. He and others managed to flee, but the next day they were arrested and - without benefit of any court proceedings - imprisoned.

In prison, Ngawang was beaten, sharp bamboo sticks were shoved under his fingernails, and he was hanged from the prison ceiling by handcuffs - all this in an effort to force him to reveal who was behind the monks' demonstration.

"I said, 'Nobody told us to do this. I know what happened to Tibet, and I felt I had to do something for my country, and I did it,'" Ngawang said.

After five years, and without explanation, Ngawang was released from prison. But he soon learned he was under surveillance by Chinese government officials and would be returned to prison.

Ngawang immediately fled Tibet, spending two months making his way through the snow-capped Himalayan Mountains, headed for Nepal. Since Nepal was not a safe country for him, he obtained help from a friend - a Tibetan nun in Santa Cruz - and headed for California.

In preparing Ngawang's case for review by an INS asylum officer, law student Telesetsky compiled various documents including Ngawang's declaration of his experiences in Tibet; news articles that corroborated his recollection of events; and his personal photos and letters.

Ngawang had a strong case for asylum. The Immigration Act offers five grounds for granting asylum - political persecution, religious persecution, persecution based on nationality, ethnicity and membership in a social group. He met not just one classification, but all five.

In addition, applicants must prove past persecution or fear of future persecution. Ngawang met both of these classifications. But he had no documentation from the Chinese government to prove his identity - those papers were taken from him in prison. His only documents were identification papers that the exiled Dalai Lama government gave him while he was in Nepal.

Despite those concerns and skeptical questioning by an INS officer, Ngawang prevailed.

"I feel they saved my future," he said of the law clinic staff members. "If they (the INS) sent me back to Tibet, I would have been in prison for the rest of my life."

For Telesetsky, the experience has strengthened her resolve to pursue a career in human rights. "It's given me a human face to what can often be very dry, bureaucratic work, and it's been very motivational," she said. "I see now that I can make a difference in a person's life."

In addition to representing clients seeking asylum, the law students also have ventured abroad to document human rights abuses. Last spring, clinic students went to the Dominican Republic to document slave-like conditions endured by Haitian migrant workers.

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