Cameroonian asylum-seeker sues US for alleged assault by Ice officers

Acheleke Fuanya claims officers knelt on his neck in the attack at a Louisiana prison to force him to accept deportation

A Cameroonian asylum-seeker is suing the US government for an alleged assault by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice) officers, who he said knelt on his neck and suffocated him to try to force him to accept his own deportation.

In a lawsuit filed on Thursday, Acheleke Fuanya said the alleged attack, at a Louisiana prison in January, has left him with persistent back and waist pain, and post-traumatic stress disorder. He also claims lingering Covid symptoms after the alleged incident in which he says the Ice officers were unmasked in violation of official regulations.

He is one of several Cameroonian asylum-seekers whose accounts of abuse at the hands of Ice agents, aimed at making them sign deportation documents, led to the last-minute cancellation of an Africa-bound deportation flight on 3 February from Louisiana. An Ice statement at the time said the flight was aborted to allow witnesses to be interviewed for “an agency review of recent use-of-force reports”.

Fuanya was interviewed twice about his treatment by Ice officials but it is unclear whether the investigation progressed any further. There is no sign of any disciplinary action being taken. In February, he made a formal complaint to the office of general counsel of the Department of Homeland Security, Ice’s parent agency, but according to his lawsuit no action has been taken in the six months since then.

Ice acknowledged receipt of a request for comment on Wednesday but did not send a response.

Fuanya told the Guardian he had decided to take the government to court “because I want to create changes for those who may be coming behind me, and for those who are still in detention going through this, going through what I went through”.

He said it was “painful” for him that the inquiry into treatment of detainees like him had produced no results as he believed “the United States is a country that upholds human rights, justice, good values and morals”.

The lawsuit, filed at a Colorado district court, alleges that five Ice officers attacked Fuanya “without provocation” at Winn correctional centre in Winnfield, Louisiana on 14 January 2021.

“The officers surrounded Mr Fuanya, tripped him to the ground, and kneeled on his neck, and pulled his head forward in order to suffocate him,” the complaint says. “Other officers yanked his arms and twisted his leg and ankle. Even after Mr Fuanya pleaded with the officers to get off of him because he could not breathe, they continued to choke him until they grabbed his fingers and forcibly fingerprinted him.”

The Ice officers were trying to make him sign a document and appeared to take his fingerprint by force as a substitute for a signature. The exact contents of the document are unknown but in other cases Ice officers have allegedly try to force asylum-seekers to sign waivers of their asylum rights or requests to their home governments for travel documents, which would put a veneer of legality on their deportations.

Fuanya had refused to sign without his lawyer reviewing the document. He is a member of Cameroon’s anglophone minority, which is the focus of a brutal battle between armed secessionists and a government counter-insurgency. He said he was tortured by the Cameroonian police in 2018,;his father, a political dissident, and his uncle have both disappeared while in police custody and his mother was sexually assaulted by policemen.

Fuanya was due to have been on the 3 February deportation flight but had been taken off just before departure because of his positive Covid test. If he had been deported, he said: “I would have been in detention, or I would have been killed. Those are two options.”

Cameroonians he knew who had been on earlier deportation flights in 2020, Fuanya said, were now in prison in Cameroon.

Fuanya has been released under supervision in Colorado while awaiting a decision on his asylum case. He says he is still suffering from the assault.

“I have lower back pain. I don’t sleep a lot. I have a lot of nightmares. I’m on medicines and going through anxiety and depression. I think a lot about it and I cry a lot,” he said.

Deportation flights to Cameroon have been halted while the Biden administration conducts a broader review of immigration and asylum policy, but there is no sign of disciplinary action in the face of widespread allegations of systematic physical abuse by Ice officers.

“The same Ice officers are still there, the same leadership that was responsible for all this stuff is still there,” said Jeremy Jong, Fuanya’s lawyer from the refugee support organisation, Al Otro Lado. “There’s been zero accountability.”


Julian Borger in Washington

The GuardianTramp

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