A Sierra Leone journalist who appealed his rejected request for asylum was granted additional proceedings by a federal appeals court last week.
Judges with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit found that both immigration courts and the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) failed to analyze the claims made by M.J. — namely that he would be killed by pro-female genital mutilation activists if he returned home to Sierra Leone.
According to the ruling, M.J. fled his home country after receiving death threats for writing a newspaper article, published in December 2016, calling for the abolition of female genital mutilation.
Following the article’s debut in a local newspaper, M.J. received death threats from the Bondo, also known as the Sande, a “powerful secret society in Sierra Leona that supports, perpetuates, and sometimes forcibly imposes female genital mutilation,” according to the document.
Both an immigration judge and the BIA ruled that M.J.’s claims did not constitute “political opinion” as necessary under asylum law despite clear evidence that the article called on the government to abolish the practice and resulted in direct threats against the journalist’s life.
“The vast majority of women in Sierra Leona have experienced some form of genital mutilation,” the document specified.
The Fifth Circuit’s decision summarized the journalist’s claim. It stated that in October 2016, M.J.’s girlfriend told him that the Bondo intended to mutilate her against her will, prompting him to investigate the group and write an article about his findings.
The following month, members of the group showed up at M.J.’s house at dusk and threatened to kill him if he continued to interfere. The journalist told the group that he intended to expose them, according to the court.
Judges wrote that the finalized article was published under the title “Abolish Female Genital Mutilation Now & Save Our Girls.” It called on the government to pass laws that totally abolish the practice in Sierra Leone.
This prompted a group of Bondo supporters carrying sticks and rocks to show up at M.J.’s house, threatening to burn it down. The man’s sister-in-law warned him of their arrival, prompting him to flee.
M.J. presented himself at the border in Laredo in January 2017 and was placed in removal proceedings.
An immigration judge initially ruled that “the threats made to [M.J.] were criminal and not equivalent to persecution on account of a political belief,” prompting the denial of M.J.’s application for asylum and withholding of removal.
The BIA upheld the judge’s ruling, prompting further appeal.
In its opinion, the Fifth Circuit cited a case in which it was determined that a political opinion constitutes “campaigning against the government, writing op-ed pieces, urging voters to oust corrupt officials…or speaking out repeatedly.”
The document cited testimony taken from M.J.’s article, which stated that politicians in Sierra Leone have refused to discuss the practice for fear of losing voters.
The article also claimed that although the government formally banned the practice, it has failed to take action against perpetrators.
The document cited incidents in which the Bondo marched four journalists through the streets naked because they had reported against female genital mutilation.
In another incident, police arrested a member of the Bondo for kidnapping a woman and cutting her genitals. However, hundreds of Bondo descended on the police station and successfully demanded the man’s release.
M.J. testified that a preacher had recently been burned alive for opposing the group.
The case was remanded to the BIA for further proceedings.