“Mock tribunal” slams Swedish asylum policy

Sweden's asylum policy, often praised as one of the most welcoming in Europe, came under heavy fire on Tuesday for not living up to its ideals from intellectuals who attended a symposium in Stockholm.

After a two-day hearing, they drew up a list of recommendations including holding Swedish authorities and officials criminally accountable for turning away people seeking asylum on legitimate grounds.

“Swedes and people outside really put up Sweden as an example. We’re hoping that Sweden can live up to its very good reputation … and make its asylum policy more just and humane,” opera singer Barbara Hendricks, an ambassador to the United Nations refugee agency, told AFP.

The so-called “asylum tribunal” issued a preliminary list of problems with the process in Sweden, including people having been expelled back to countries where they risk torture and the use of speech analysis as the sole factor in determining whether an asylum seeker is genuine.

“We’re going to present our suggestions to the government and to Swedish citizens, and we hope they will engender discussions and reflection about the problem,” said Hendriks.

The conference was inspired by a 1967 tribunal in Stockholm and Copenhagen organised by the British philosopher Bertrand Russell.

Joined by greats of the day as Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, he set up an unofficial trial to hold the United States accountable for what the group claimed were war crimes in Vietnam.

Although the Stockholm hearing was less international in scope, it managed to draw a number of personalities, including Hendricks and George Bizos, a South African human rights advocate and lawyer to its former president Nelson Mandela.

Sweden’s asylum process has been the focus of much heated debate in recent years, criticized at home and abroad for being too lengthy and leaving refugees in a state of uncertainty, sometimes for years.

The country has also been chastised by the UN Committee against Torture, Human Rights Watch and other international bodies for its 2001 deportation of two suspected Egyptian extremists to Egypt, where they were later allegedly tortured.

In December 2001, Ahmed Agiza and Mohammed al-Zery, who were suspected of terrorist activities and ordered deported from Sweden, were handed over to US agents, then put on a plane leased by the Pentagon and flown to Egypt.

The pair claimed they were mistreated by the agents during the transfer to Cairo, and then tortured during their detention in Egypt.

“I was especially troubled by … the case of the two Egyptians,” Hendricks said, insisting that Sweden had shown an “abdication of responsibility” in the case.

Responding to some of the criticism, the Swedish parliament last week voted to temporarily give asylum seekers whose application have been rejected a second chance to obtain a residence permit.

The asylum tribunal did not directly address the temporary law but hopes to influence a definitive law expected to go into effect next March.

“There are lots of questions that need to be asked … How does someone prove that they have been tortured? How do they prove it is dangerous for them to go back?” Björn Linnell, president of the Sweden Center of International PEN, one of the organizers of the tribunal, told AFP before the hearing began.

“We want to raise awareness about these issues,” he said.