'They are sending me to my death' - Jojo Yakob loses his appeal to stay in Scotland
By Michael Howie, The Scotsman 3 October 2008
WHEN he jammed his body into a tiny compartment in a cold storage truck destined for the United Kingdom, Jojo Yakob believed he was on the road to freedom.
The desperate teenager had endured daily beatings, electric shocks and water torture at the hands of Syria's secret police. Lost and helpless, he was trafficked to the UK, where he hoped to build a life free from torture arising from his homosexuality and his father's links to an opposition Kurdish party.
But now, three years on, Mr Yakob again fears for his life after losing a final appeal at the Court of Session to stay in Scotland. The decision means that he will almost certainly be returned to Syria.
Mr Yakob told The Scotsman that the ruling, delivered in private by judge Lord Carloway, was the equivalent of issuing his death warrant.
He is so scared of reprisals that he asked The Scotsman to photograph him in shadow.
"They're going to send me to death. They don't treat me like a human being," said the 20-year-old, who has been staying in Edinburgh.
"I was devastated when my lawyer told me the news. I am so upset. The last three years have been very stressful for me."
A campaign backed by MSPs and gay rights groups had tried to overturn an earlier Home Office ruling and win permission for Mr Yakob to stay in the UK.
But members of the campaign say Lord Carloway's decision has hammered the final nail into the young man's coffin.
Mr Yakob's nightmare began back in 2005, when he was arrested for handing out anti-government leaflets given to him by his father, a politician with the pro-Kurdish Yakiti Party.
After his arrest, the teenager was taken to a police station, where he says he was beaten.
He was put up against a wall and had a handgun pointed at him. "I was told if I did not tell the police what they wanted, they would shoot me," he said. "I didn't think they would. Then the police officer shot me in my upper left arm."
That forced the "confession" that his torturers wanted. Mr Yakob told them his father had given him the anti-government leaflets. Mr Yakob says his father was later given a 20-year sentence for being a pro-Kurdish party activist.
The son was held for 20 days in a police cell, without charge, and claims he was subjected to electric shocks and daily beatings.
His troubles increased after he was transferred to Ahdas Prison, near the Turkish border. His guards there discovered him with another male prisoner, triggering a fresh wave of torture.
"They beat me every day and put hot knives on my body, my bottom. They told me it was because I was gay."
Another technique used by his guards was to constantly throw buckets of freezing cold water over him. Like many countries where Islam is the dominant religion, homosexuality is illegal in Syria. It is, according to a spokesman at the Syrian Embassy in London, seen as a "disease" that has to be "treated".
Mr Yakob says he was transferred from the jail to a hospital in the nearby town of Kamishli. A doctor told him he had fallen into a coma for 20 days after suffering severe blood loss.
He realised he had to escape. "I could see the police outside, so I ran away from the garden at the back of the hospital at night. I went home and took money that my father had saved. I travelled by bus for eight hours into Lebanon. I could not stay in Syria. The government say they do not imprison people any longer for being gay. This is not true."
With his father in prison, Mr Yakob had no-one to turn to. He headed to the Lebanese capital, Beirut, where he was introduced to a human-trafficking "fixer", who agreed to transport him to Britain for about £2,000.
"There were three of us placed on a lorry with fridges full of meat. We were put in a small hole between the fridges. I was not allowed to talk to the other two people. I don't know where they came from," he recalled.
He said the journey took about 20 days. They were fed and watered inside the lorry, and were only allowed to get out to relieve themselves. "We slept always on the lorry. I was in a bad state when we arrived in England," he said.
Arriving in Dover in December 2005 without any personal papers, the Home Office issued Mr Yakob with a date of birth - 1 January, 1988.
The then-teenager applied for asylum, and, after examination by a Home Office doctor - he still bore scars from the gunshot to his arm and was suffering post-traumatic shock - he was granted permission to remain in the UK for one year. However, he was refused permanent refugee status after a ruling that homosexuals were not generally persecuted in Syria.
His supporters say the Home Office also effectively rejected his claims that he was attacked for his involvement in politics, because he was unable to prove his injuries were caused by torture.
Mr Yakob spent the following weeks and months drifting from city to city, staying with people he befriended. From London, to Leicester, to Leeds, he finally wound up in Aberdeen, where he was found in April last year in possession of a fake Belgian passport.
He was handed a 12-month sentence and sent to Polmont Young Offenders' Institution, near Falkirk. His lawyers claimed his asylum application was then mistakenly withdrawn and, as a result, he was served with a deportation order pending a final hearing in May.
The hearing, at the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal in Glasgow, found against him, but he was kept at Polmont pending a last-ditch appeal to the Court of Session. He was released from Polmont on 30 May after a Good Samaritan answered an advert on a website appealing for someone to provide Mr Yakob with shelter.
Madeline Marshall, 68, from Edinburgh, answered the call, and took him under her wing for three months.
But any glimmer of hope for a new life appeared to be firmly blocked out after his lawyer, John Hall, phoned him earlier this week to inform him of Lord Carloway's ruling.
Mr Yakob fears being detained any day by the UK Border Agency and is convinced that persecution, torture and possibly even death await him if he is deported back to Syria.
He said: "This has destroyed me. I wish I could go back, but I cannot do that - it's not safe. I cannot stay here and there is nowhere else I can go. I cannot go back because I am gay and my family are involved in politics. I don't ask for anything - just safety."
"They will put me in prison for sure. They hear about me in Syria. They read the newspapers. People will be waiting for me. I told the Scottish Government what Syria did to me and my family. I came to theUK to have freedom, but unfortunately they don't want me to be here."
AN ASYLUM seeker is someone of any age who has fled their country to find safety. They must show a well-founded fear of persecution.
Asylum seekers are not allowed to work until granted refugee status.
There are believed to be around 4,000 asylum seekers in Scotland. Those deemed to have a weak claim can be sent to detention centres, such as Dungavel, in Lanarkshire. It opened in 2001 and can hold 190.
Campaigners have demanded Dungavel's closure and an end to the controversial practice of dawn raids.
Grandmother who just wanted to help
MADELINE Marshall, right, says she "just wanted to help" when she gave refuge to Jojo Yakob.
The 68-year-old grandmother, from Edinburgh, was drawn to an advert placed on a website in April by someone sympathetic to Mr Yakob's plight as he languished in Polmont Young Offenders' Institution.
She said: "I can't remember exactly, but it said something like 'young Kurdish Christian, homosexual, asylum seeker in Polmont prison. Is there anyone prepared to offer him a place to live for two or three weeks?'
"He has been no trouble to me at all. He doesn't want anything - except to be able to live here and be safe.
"The only problem I had with him is that he wouldn't take anything from me."
She says she has papers supporting his case that his injuries were due to torture. "What the Home Office is saying is that, yes, he's got these injuries, but they cannot accept they necessarily were caused by torture. But I don't know how else a boy would get these type of injuries."
MP demands justice for 'death sentence' Jojo
By David Maddox
The Scotsman, 3 October 2008
THE plight of a Syrian asylum seeker who fears he will be killed if he is deported from Scotland is to be raised with the Home Office.
The Scotsman yesterday revealed that Jojo Yakoub believes he has been issued with a death warrant in the form of a deportation notice from immigration officials.
Now SNP home affairs spokesman Pete Wishart has intervened in the case and is demanding a meeting with the Home Office.
Mr Yakoub fled to the UK from Syria as a teenager after suffering torture and beatings from secret police because of his homosexuality, which is illegal there, and his father's links to a Kurdish political party. He has spent the past three months in Edinburgh, after a long journey that started when he was first arrested in Syria in 2005 for handing out political leaflets.
He was held for 20 days in a cell where he claims was tortured with electric shocks and beatings.
His homosexuality was discovered after he was transferred and guards at Ahdas Prison found him with another man. The resultant beatings and torture left him in a coma for 20 days.
After being released from hospital he fled to Beirut and then made the long journey to the UK where he hoped to find refuge.
But, having lost his appeal in the Court of Session, he is certain that if he is returned to his home country he will face the death sentence. When he heard of the ruling by the judge, Lord Carloway, he said: "They're going to send me to death. They don't treat me like a human being."
Mr Wishart has previously made representations on behalf of the Mr Yakoub, and now has written to immigration minister Liam Byrne seeking a meeting on Monday.
He said yesterday: "I am appalled that the Home Office are pressing ahead with deportation given the very real risk that Mr Yakob will suffer further ill treatment or possibly even death if returned to Syria.
"We have a legal and moral responsibility to protect victims of persecution, and it is just unbelievable that the Home Office would consider sending him back."
Nick Henderson from the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transexual Network (LGBT) said that the UK government had ignored the threat gay people faced in deportations for too long.
"Jojo is yet another poor victim of the government's terrible policy," he said. "We know of three other cases similar to Jojo's where deportation has gone ahead. The Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, has blood on her hands for the people like Jojo her department has deported."
Call to change rules as Home Office says it is 'compassionate'
The Scotsman3 October 2008
EQUALITY campaigners last night called for a ban on deporting lesbian and gay people to countries where homosexuality is illegal, after Jojo Yakob's last-ditch bid to stay in Scotland was thrown out.The Scotsman can reveal that the Court of Session has rejected an appeal against the Home Office's decision to deny Mr Yakob refugee status.
Lord Carloway's four-page ruling has not been made public, although copies have been sent to the Home Office and Mr Yakob's legal team.
The 20-year-old, who is gay, arrived in the UK nearly three years ago after fleeing torture at the hands of Syrian secret police and prison guards.
He said the Syrian authorities inflicted beatings, burning, electric shocks and water torture on him after discovering he was homosexual. He had earlier been arrested and tortured for distributing leaflets on behalf of an anti-government Kurdish party.
But the Home Office refused to grant Mr Yakob refugee status after deciding that homosexuals were safe from persecution in Syria. That claim was last night rejected by MSPs and equality campaigners supporting Mr Yakob.
Nico Juetten, policy manager with LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) Youth Scotland, said: "We cannot comment on the individual circumstances of a young person who our youth workers have been supporting through what is a very difficult time.
"However, we are very concerned about what might lie ahead for lesbian and gay people who are deported to any of more than 70 countries worldwide where homosexuality is against the law.
"We do not believe that deporting vulnerable people to places where they might face incarceration and torture is a hallmark of a humane asylum process that treats all those who come to the UK with protection with dignity."
Nationalist MSP Shirley-Anne Somerville, who lodged a motion in the Scottish Parliament calling for a moratorium on such deportations, admitted Mr Yakob's case was "very difficult and complex".
But she added: "It's very upsetting to find his last legal opportunity has been taken up - and was unsuccessful.
"There's little doubt that in a lot of countries, Syria included, being gay will lead to persecution. This young man is understandably in fear of his life."
She added: "I'm looking for the Home Office to urgently review the guidelines and criteria they have. We simply can't have people forced back to their country of origin if that puts their life in any danger."
A Home Office spokeswoman last night refused to comment on Mr Yakob's case. But she added: "Claims for asylum are carefully considered by trained case-workers, examining every aspect.
"Where an individual faces a well-founded fear of persecution, asylum will be granted. However, in cases where we find that individuals have no fear of persecution or serious harm upon return to their home country, they are expected to leave the UK.
"Our asylum decisions are humane and compassionate and are also subject to independent scrutiny by the judiciary."
Danger lies in ties with Kurdish opposition
by Michael Howie
The Scotsman 3 October 2008
AN EXPERT on Syrian politics believes any links Jojo Yakob has with Kurdish opposition parties could land him in bigger trouble than his homosexuality if he is returned to his home country.
He claims Mr Yakob could be arrested for any ties he might have with Kurdish groups. Joshua Landis, the co-director of the Centre for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, said: "They will be watching him like a hawk."
About 200,000 Kurds in Syria have no passport and are on society's margins.
Offering Mr Yakob a small glimmer of hope, he said gay people could avoid state aggression "if they keep their heads down".
But he admitted: "I don't know what the secret police would do to him."
A spokesman for the Syrian Embassy in London said: "Homosexuality is illegal, but there are no special units to deal with this problem.
"People are not prosecuted - society looks at this as a disease for which they can be treated - it is a similar position to that taken by the Vatican. I cannot give a clearer answer. But we are not Switzerland."
Human rights abuses by the Syrian authorities are severe and widespread. The article about Jojo Yakob in the print edition of the Scotsman was accompanied by a photograph of Syrians demonstrating in 2006 against the publication in a Danish newspaper of cartoons of the prophet Muhammad; the photograph is captioned "Hardline nation." But human rights abuses in Syria are overwhelmingly carried out by the regime, not by the people. Government brutality is not ideologically driven. Like the former regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the Syrian government persecutes people from any group that could threaten or dilute its grip on power.
Victims include Islamists, Palestinians, Kurds, campaigners for democracy, human rights activists and groups campaigning for women's rights.
Despite the apparent hostility between the Syria and the USA, Syria is a favoured destination for victims of the CIA's rendition programme.
The Amnesty International Report 2008, covering the period January-December 2007 says:
"The state of emergency, in force since 1963, continued to give security forces sweeping powers of arrest and detention. Freedom of expression and association were severely restricted. Hundreds of people were arrested and hundreds of othersremained imprisoned for political reasons, including prisoners of conscience and others sentenced after unfair trials. Human rights defenders were harassed and persecuted. Women and members of the Kurdish minority faced discrimination in law and practice. Torture and other ill-treatment were committed with impunity. Public executions resumed."
"... Detainees continued to be tortured and otherwise illtreated five reportedly died, possibly as a result. The authorities took no action to investigate torture allegations."
"'Aref Dalilah, aged 64, remained in solitary confinement in a small cell in 'Adra prison, serving a 10-year sentence for his involvement in the "Damascus Spring". He suffers from diabetes, high blood pressure and the effects of a stroke, but was denied access to adequate medical care."
"The body of 'Abd al-Moez Salem was reportedly returned to his family in Areeha on 4 July and buried in the presence of Military Intelligence agents who did not allow the body to be seen or prepared for burial. He had apparently been held incommunicado for up to two years, including at the Palestine Branch."
"Aref Hannoush, 16, was among up to nine youths allegedly tortured and otherwise ill-treated while detained in Damascus in August. They said they were confined in cramped and degrading conditions, denied sleep or access to a toilet, and beaten, including by the dulab (being forced into a car tyre and beaten."
"... Syrian Kurds continued to suffer from identity-based discrimination, including restrictions on the use of the Kurdish language and culture. Tens of thousands of Syrian Kurds remained effectively stateless and therefore denied equal access to social andeconomic rights."
"Kurdish artist Salah 'Amr Sheerzad was detained and ill-treated at a security branch in Aleppo afterparticipating in a music concert, according to reports in March."
"Eight Kurds were arrested on 5 April and detained for 10 days at a Political Security branch in Damascus, according to reports. They appear to have been arrested for wearing wristbands showing the colours of the Kurdish flag."
"...The fate of some 17,000 people, mostly Islamists who were victims of enforced disappearance after they were detained in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and hundreds of Lebanese and Palestinians who were detained in Syria or abducted from Lebanon by Syrian forces or Lebanese and Palestinian militias, remained unknown."
Documented instances of renditions to Syria carried out by the CIA include:
- Muhammad Haydar Zammar; German (Syrian descent), rendered from Morocco to Syria in November 2001 or December 2001; Tortured in Syria; now in Syrian custody
- Barah Abdul Latif; Syrian, rendered from Pakistan to Syria in May 2002; Questioned in Palestine Branch Prison, Damascus
- Bahaa Mustafa Jaghel; Syrian; rendered from Pakistan to Syria in May 2002; Questioned in Palestine Branch Prison, Damascus
- Abdel Halim Dalak; a student of unknown nationality rendered from Pakistan to Syria in May 2002; Status unknown
- Omar Ghramesh; rendered from Pakistan to Syria in May 2002; Arrested with Abu Zubaydah; Status unknown
- Unidentified teenager; rendered from Pakistan to Syria in May 2002; Status unknown
- Yasser Tinawi; Syrian; rendered from Somailia to Syria via Ethiopia and Egypt in July 2002; Interrogated by U.S. agents in Ethiopia, then flown to Cairo; transferred to Syria
- Maher Arar; Syrian/Canadian; rendered from New York to Syria in September 2002; Tortured in Syria; released February 2004
- Mustafa Setmariam Nasar (Abu Musab al-Suri); Syrian-Spanish; rendered from Pakistan in November 2005; was in U.S. custody in early 2006; now likely in Syrian custody