‘Tortured’ US Muslim seeks asylum in Sweden

A US citizen who claims he was imprisoned and tortured at the behest the American FBI is seeking political asylum in Sweden.

'Tortured' US Muslim seeks asylum in Sweden

Yonas Fikre, a 33-year-old American Muslim, is currently in Sweden awaiting word on his application for political asylum after having been imprisoned in the United Arab Emirates where he claims he was tortured for 106 days at the request of American government agents.

“He told me to lie down on the floor and he started beating the soles of my feet,” he said in a video clip published on the YouTube channel of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), an advocacy group for American Muslims which has supported Fikre throughout his ordeal.

“This guy looked at me and said, ‘Look, your government doesn’t care about you. You’re in our hands now. You do what we tell you to do and you’ll get out of here as soon as possible. Otherwise you’re going to sit here for years and years to come and your government will never, ever find you.'”

Fikre’s problems first started back in 2009 while he was visiting Sudan and stem from his association with a mosque in Portland, Oregon in the western United States.

While he was in Sudan, Fikre, a naturalized US citizen from Eritrea who converted to Islam in 2003, was “harassed” by FBI agents from Portland looking for information about Portland’s Masjid as-Sabr mosque.

According to Fikre’s Swedish lawyer Hans Bredberg, the agents thought Fikre could help them learn more about the mosque, where Mohamed Osman Mohamud, a Somali American charged with plotting the “Christmas tree bomb” attempt in 2010, had once worshiped.

“He refused to cooperate so they started harassing him,” Bredberg told The Local.

“I think these agents were sort of working on their own initiative, that it wasn’t officially sanctioned, but the FBI isn’t saying anything.”

Suddenly, Fikre found himself on the FBI’s “no-fly” list and unable to fly to the United States.

He then travelled to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), but the harassment continued, and on June 1st, 2011, Fikre was arrested and imprisoned, not to be released for another three months.

He claims to have been tortured for 106 days, in what he described to the AP news agency as the most isolating experience of his life.

In addition to having his bare feet beaten, Fikre claims to have been kicked and punched and sprayed with a fire hose.

“It wasn’t actual FBI agents who tortured him, they were private contractors,” said Bredberg, adding that the prison where his client was held was “a few hundred metres” from the US embassy.

When officials from the US embassy came to visit, Fikre was threatened by his interrogators that “all hell would break loose” if he hinted that he was being mistreated and was subsequently held even longer.

“This is a disturbing case. It fits a pattern of what we call proxy detention, where the American government has a US citizen detained and tortured overseas for information,” CAIR spokesperson Ibrahim Hooper told The Local, explaining the incident isn’t the first time an American Muslim has been detained and tortured in such circumstances.

“They do things to their prisoners that are illegal in America.”

According to Hooper, when Fikre asked for a legal representation in Sudan he was refused, just as when he asked for a counselor in the UAE.

However, this was not the first time someone with a connection to the Portland mosque has received this kind of treatment from government officials, who Hooper claims are “fixated” on the mosque.

“The situation is ludicrous, think about it. You’ve got an American citizen who’s asked for asylum overseas because he’s too afraid to return to the US,” said Hooper.

“This would be laughable if it wasn’t so tragic.”

Meanwhile, Anna-Pia Beier, a lawyer with the Swedish Refugee Advice Centre (Rådgivningsbyrån för asylsökande och flyktingar), told The Local she wasn’t aware of the case, but said it was “theoretically possible” that Fikre could end up being granted political asylum in Sweden.

“If he can show that he’s being persecuted on religious or political grounds and that the authorities are unable to protect him, he could be granted asylum,” she said, emphasizing, however, that it was hard to assess his chances without knowing the details of the case.

“It’s very unusual for Americans to apply for political asylum here,” she said, an assessment backed up by Fikre’s lawyer who explained that such cases were “extremely rare”.

According to Bredberg, Fikre ended up in Sweden because some distant relatives from Eritrea live here.

“When they finally released him in September, they told him they would fly him to somewhere in Europe and to pick a country and he chose Sweden,” the lawyer explained.

Fikre has been in Sweden since September while his asylum application has been processed, something which has taken exceedingly long, according to Bredberg, because of an unexplained delay by an investigation being carried out by Swedish security service Säpo.

“They’re looking into whether he’s a threat to Swedish national security or not,” he said.

“It’s taken more than two months. It usually goes much faster and I suspect they’ve been in contact with US authorities and I’m not sure what they might say.”

David Landes and Oliver Gee

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‘The idea is to convert permanent residency into Swedish citizenship,’ Migration minister says

Sweden's Migration Minister has responded to criticism of the government's proposal to abolish permanent residency, telling an interviewer that the hope is that holders will gain full citizenship rather than get downgraded to temporary status.

'The idea is to convert permanent residency into Swedish citizenship,' Migration minister says

“The main idea behind the [Tidö] agreement is that we should convert permanent residency to citizenship,” Maria Malmer Stenergard, from the right-wing Moderate Party, told the Svenska Dagbladet newspaper.”You should not be here forever on a permanent residence permit. A clear path to citizenship is needed.”

I envision that you will receive individual plans for how to achieve this,” she continued. “Learn the language, earn a living, and have knowledge of Swedish society, so that you can fully become a Swedish citizen.” 

Malmer Stenergard said it was still unclear whether a planned government inquiry into the possibility of “converting…existing permanent residence permits” would also open the way for those who have been given a permanent right to live in the country to be downgraded to a temporary residency permit. 

“We’ll have to look at that,” she said. “There is a problem with positive administrative decisions and changing them, which the Migration Agency’s director general Mikael Ribbenvik has been aware of. We also state in the Tidö Agreement that basic principles of administrative law shall continue to apply.” 

READ ALSO: What do we know about Sweden’s plans to withdraw permanent residency?

In the Tidö Agreement, the deal between the far-right Sweden Democrats and the three government parties, it says that “asylum-related residence permits should be temporary and the institution of permanent residence permits should be phased out to be replaced by a new system based on the immigrant’s protection status”.

It further states that “an inquiry will look into the circumstances under which existing permanent residence permits can be converted, for example through giving affected permit holders realistic possibilities to gain citizenship before a specified deadline. These changes should occur within the framework of basic legal principles.”

Malmer Stenergard stressed that the government would only retroactively reverse an administrative decision (over residency) if a way can be found to make such a move compatible with such principles. 

“This is why we state in the Tidö Agreement that basic principles of administrative law must apply,” she said. 

She said the government had not yet come to a conclusion on what should happen to those with permanent residency who either cannot or are unwilling to become Swedish citizens. 

“We’re not there yet, but of course we’re not going to be satisfied with people just having an existing permanent residency, which in many cases has been granted without any particularly clear demands, if they don’t then take the further steps required for citizenship.” 

This did not mean, however, that those with permanent residency permits should be worried, she stressed. 

“If your ambition is to take yourself into Swedish society, learn the language, become self-supporting, and live according to our norms and values, I think that there’s a very good chance that you will be awarded citizenship.” 

She said that even if people couldn’t meet the requirements for citizenship, everyone with permanent residency should at least have “an individual plan for how they are going to become citizens”, if they want to stay in Sweden. 

When it comes to other asylum seekers, however, she said that the government’s aim was for residencies to be recalled more often. 

“We want to find a way to let the Migration Agency regularly reassess whether the grounds for residency remain. The aim is that more residencies should be recalled, for example, if a person who is invoking a need of asylum or other protection then goes back to their home country for a holiday.”