Petah Tikva court rules in favor of Columbian asylum seeker

Judge slams Interior Ministry for denying man safety from gangs that persecuted him over his mother’s assistance to Israel.

311_gavel (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The Central District Court in Petah Tikva released details on Tuesday of a judgment made this week in favor of a Colombian citizen, John Hernandez, who had petitioned the court against the Interior Ministry’s decision to deny him refugee status.
Hernandez applied for asylum in Israel because he claimed his life was in danger following threats and a brutal beating by members of an Israeli-Colombian crime gang in Colombia.
The persecution began because Hernandez’s mother, Rosa Gutierrez, had been a witness in an international criminal investigation involving Israeli and Colombian nationals.
Police had invited Gutierrez to Israel, where she lived for several years, in order to help the authorities in an investigation to uncover gang members suspected of forging asylum documents.
Evidence provided by Gutierrez led to the arrest, indictment and deportation of several Colombian citizens living illegally in Israel.
However in 2008, Gutierrez – who was still living in Israel and has herself applied for asylum – began to receive threats from a man known only as “Yossi,” the central Israeli suspect in the case. Gutierrez said those threats were connected to the criminal investigation against the forgery gang.
At the same time, her son Hernandez also started to receive anonymous threatening phone calls to his home in Montenegro, Colombia.
The threats escalated in May 2009 when Hernandez was brutally assaulted in Montenegro by four men, who threatened to kill him because his mother was a police informant. They beat Hernandez until he was unconscious, and he spent several days in hospital.
Hernandez claims that he gave evidence about the attack to the Colombian police, but feared for his life and fled to Egypt.
From there, he crossed the border into Israel and immediately applied for asylum.
However, the the Interior Ministry’s Refugee Status Division denied Hernandez’s request to be granted refugee status, and Hernandez took his case to court.
The Interior Ministry told the court that Hernandez does not qualify for refugee status under the 1951 Geneva Convention on Refugees, in part because he claims to be persecuted not by the state of Colombia itself but by criminal gangs.
The Interior Ministry also alleged that Hernandez had not told the truth about the violent assault.
However, the court dismissed the state’s claims that Hernandez had lied about the assault and threats. The judge also noted that Hernandez had asked for protection from the Colombian government but had not received it.
In ruling that Hernandez should receive refugee status, Judge Rami Amir also slammed the state’s suggestion that he should merely have moved to another Colombian city after the brutal attack and threats to his life.
“It is clear that there were reasons [for the state] to give assistance for humanitarian reasons to one exposed to threats and attacks because of his mother’s aid to Israel in dealing with an international crime syndicate,” wrote Amir in his judgment.
“When the state asks for help from someone, the state should also commit itself to ensuring that person and their family are not harmed in the process.” The ruling is the first of its kind to be made since the Interior Ministry established a new system for asylum seekers in January.
Refugee organizations have heavily criticized that new system, according to which the Interior Ministry’s Refugee Status Determination unit conducts a basic interview with asylum seekers shortly after their arrival in Israel. Immediately after that interview, the state decides whether to progress with the asylum claim or dismiss it out of hand.
If an asylum case is dismissed, the state can deport the asylum seeker immediately.
This puts the lives of many asylum seekers at risk, because their cases usually only receive a superficial review, refugee organizations claim.
Attorney Yonatan Berman, a legal adviser for the Hotline for Migrant Workers, told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday that he welcomed the ruling in the Hernandez case, which he said exposes many of the flaws of the Interior Ministry’s new asylum system.
“The verdict reveals the lack of professionalism of the refugee status determination unit, the ministry’s ignorance of refugee law, and its determination to deport even those people whose lives are in danger,” Berman said.
Berman added that he hoped that this case will set a precedent for future rulings in the cases of other asylum seekers whose claims have been rejected by the Interior Ministry.