Lawyers in Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, LLP’s New York office have served as pro bono outside counsel to Human Rights First (“HRF”), formerly known as Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, for more than a decade. During Manatt’s relationship with HRF, its attorneys, coordinated by Paul Gangsei, have provided advice on corporate governance, business operations, office leases, new office construction, office location, and insurance matters, among other work.
Founded in 1978, HRF works in the United States and abroad to create a secure and humane world by advancing justice, human dignity, and respect for the rule of law. The organization supports human rights activists who fight for basic freedoms and peaceful change at the local level, protects refugees in flight from persecution and repression, helps build a strong international system of justice and accountability, and makes sure human rights laws and principles are enforced in the United States and abroad.
Recently Manatt has added a new dimension to its relationship with HRF by taking on more trial work and asylum cases. Our most recent asylum case is a vivid example of the rewarding pro bono work that we are performing for HRF and that HRF and its volunteer attorneys have provided for thousands of refugees seeking asylum.
Dechen Dolma is a 24-year-old refugee from Tibet, and her story is a study in survival. Her parents left Tibet when she was eight after her father was beaten and his house destroyed by soldiers of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). He had sent two of his children to Nepal for an education, an act deemed counter revolutionary by the PRC, which has occupied Tibet since 1949.
The family (father, pregnant mother, Dechen, and a younger sister) trekked by foot in the Himalayas for four days until they reached a refugee camp in Nepal, where they spent the next three years in a subsistence situation. Finally, the family, without official papers, made their way to Kathmandu in search of work. Dechen was placed with a wealthy Nepali family (the Shakyas), where she served as an “out-of-sight” domestic, babysitter, and cook for the next 12 years. Her parents, unable to find work in Nepal, returned to Tibet, where they have simply disappeared. Dechen has had no word for the past nine years.
Had she been denied asylum, Dechen would have been returned to Nepal, where she almost certainly would have been repatriated to Tibet. There she would have been treated as a political prisoner by virtue of her escape some 15 years ago. She would have been sent to the dreaded Shigatsi Prison, where female inmates are routinely tortured, raped, and often executed. the abuses by the Chinese have been well documented and have been a source of concern for human rights advocates for some time.
The Nepalis will not grant official status to Tibetans, so Dechen remained “underground” and essentially stateless while in Nepal. Two years ago she married the Shakyas’ gardener (also a Tibetan) and they have one child. Over the past several years the Nepali government has been locked in a struggle with Maoist rebels for control of the country. The Nepali army and the Maoists have each committed atrocities, and no one is safe, especially young Tibetan refugees, who are regularly impressed into Maoist service at gunpoint. Extortion is widely practiced, and Mr. Shakya was regularly forced to pay “protection” money to Maoists under threat of arson. After he decided to leave Nepal for safer grounds, he informed Dechen that he could no longer off er her protection. He gave her money to obtain a forged Nepali passport for travel to the United States, where she could seek asylum. Her husband remained in Nepal with their child on the theory that she, as a woman, could more easily find work in the U.S., if her asylum request were granted.
Dechen arrived at Kennedy Airport in July 2004, where she was immediately detained by immigration authorities. Our firm was contacted by Human Rights First asking for pro bono assistance in Dechen’s asylum case. Michael Barkow, a partner in Manatt’s New York office, volunteered. Michael filed her asylum papers, represented her at a preliminary hearing, gathered documentation on her behalf, and then briefed and argued her case before the court. She was granted asylum on December 15, 2004.
Now that Dechen has been granted asylum, her husband and child are also eligible. Michael has begun their paperwork. In the meantime, Dechen has been placed as a domestic with a Connecticut family. “Dechen is a courageous woman and I was pleased beyond words to help her start a new life,” says Michael.
Michael dedicated countless hours to this case, and the entire Manatt firm is very proud of his efforts. “I never felt more worthy as a lawyer than the day her asylum was granted,” he says. “Dechen’s tearful reaction was more than worth the effort.”
Michael Posner, Executive Director of Human Rights First, says, “Manatt has provided invaluable assistance to Human Rights First on a range of issues. Paul Gangsei’s wise counsel has guided us through many business matters, including securing new office space in New York. He has both saved us much-needed resources and provided peace of mind. The firm has also taken on several cases on behalf of refugees fleeing persecution. We are deeply grateful to Manatt for helping us address both our business needs and for supporting our Asylum program.”
This publication summarizes recent legal developments and is not meant to express any legal opinion or advice. You should consult an attorney for legal advice.
Manatt Attorney Contacts:Michael Barkow, 212.790.4590Paul Gangsei, 212.830.7213