Washington, 13 December 1996 (RFE/RL) -- A court in the state of California has been told that a Russian lesbian seeking to stay in the United States could be institutionalized, undergo electroshock therapy and face other persecution if she is forced to return to her native Russia.
A lawyer for Alla Pitcherskaia made the comments to a federal appeals court in San Francisco this week. Pitcherskaia, 34, could be deported if her plea for political asylum fails.
Pitcherskaia came to the United States in 1992 and sought political asylum based on her persecution as a lesbian in Russia and the former Soviet Union, her lawyer, Suzanne Goldberg, told RFE/RL.
According to Goldberg, Pitcherskaia was repeatedly threatened in Russia with institutionalization because of her homosexuality and often detained for her political activism on behalf of gay and lesbian rights.
Goldberg said that Pitcherskaia was arrested numerous times solely because she is gay and was forced to attend counseling sessions.
Pitcherskaia's initial asylum application filed in 1993 was denied by an immigration judge in 1994. Pitcherskaia appealed the decision to the U.S. Board of Immigration Appeals, but in 1995 the Board upheld the judge's decision to reject her application. Finally, Pitcherskaia filed an appeal with the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco which is currently assesesing the case.
The Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund -- the U.S.'s largest lesbian and gay legal organization -- has aided Pitcherskaia legally since 1993.
Goldberg, who is a lawyer for Lambda, said that the U.S. government's refusal to grant Pitcherskaia asylum is "mystifying."
Goldberg said the State Department's own report on human rights in 1994 noted that gays and lesbians were still being forcibly insitutionalized and harrassed in Russia.
"If Alla were returned to Russia, she could be forcibly institutionalized, arbitrarily arrested, and left vulnerable by Russian police to anti-gay attacks by the Russian Mafia. She clearly has a well-founded fear of persecution on account of being a lesbian. This is precisely the kind of case in which asylum based on severe torment for a disfavored sexual orientation should be granted," said Goldberg.
However, government lawyers told the court that there was no basis for Pitcherskaia's fears of future persecution in Russia.
Steven Funk, a lawyer for the Justice Department, said in court that Pitcherskaia's harassment stopped in 1983 and laws banning homosexuality in Russia have since been overturned. He added that Pitcherskaia was never actually institutionalized while in Russia and the counseling sessions she underwent were simply the government's attempts to help her. Her fears of further persecution are unfounded, he said.
Goldberg strongly disagrees.
"Forced psychiatric institutionalization of gay people continues today in Russia, as do arbitrary arrests and detentions," she said.
Brian Jordan, a spokesman for the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) in Washington, told RFE/RL that while he could not comment directly on the case, he could explain the strict guidelines the INS must follow in asylum cases.
First, says Jordan, there must be a well-founded fear of persecution. The INS considers five areas of persecution: race, nationality, religion, political opinion and particular social group. Sexual orientation, says Jordan, falls under the last area.
Jordan says each case is investigated by an INS officer. If that officer determines there is credible fear, he said, then it comes under consideration for the granting of political asylum. If the officer determines there is no credible fear of persecution, then asylum will be denied.
There is always recourse for the plaintiff, adds Jordan. The person can appeal to an immigration judge of the Office of Immigration Review or the Bureau of Immigration Affairs. Litigation, adds Jordan, is done on a case by case basis.
Goldberg said Pitcherskaia's case is the first time a federal appeals court has considered sexual orientation as a basis for political asylum. The United States has previously granted about 40 cases of asylum based on sexual orientation, but this is the first time an appeal has been filed in federal court.
A three-judge panel will decide the case, but it is unknown when the ruling will come. Goldberg said that if Pitcherskaia fails to win her appeal, her avenues for further appeal are limited and she may be deported.
Pitcherskaia, who works for a travel agency, did not appear in court.