- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 4, 2005

NORFOLK (AP) — An African man who sought political asylum in the United States, but was detained on suspicions that he posed a national security threat, has been deported to Cameroon after spending more than two years in jail.

Bitbila C. Yonko was released from the Hampton Roads Regional Jail in Portsmouth, where he was held since January 2003.

“I’m so very, very happy,” Mr. Yonko told the Virginian-Pilot after leaving jail.

Mr. Yonko, 28, filed suit in Norfolk’s federal court in the spring seeking release. He claimed the government should have released him while he pursued his asylum claim, but officials said Mr. Yonko remained a security threat because they were unable to verify his identity.

Mr. Yonko said immigration officials took him from jail Tuesday and drove him to Northern Virginia, where he was supposed to board his flight to Cameroon. He plans to reunite with family once he is in Cameroon.

“They’re already waiting for me,” he said.

Mr. Yonko was scheduled to depart Wednesday but, because of an unspecified complication, he was awaiting departure to the West African nation, said Mike Gilhooly, a spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“We will be removing him soon,” said Mr. Gilhooly, who said Mr. Yonko remained in U.S. custody yesterday but declined to provide details.

The case highlights the government’s stricter immigration policies after September 11, 2001, as it more carefully scrutinizes asylum seekers.

Mr. Yonko said his family was originally from the Ivory Coast and his father was a high-ranking military officer who was killed after a coup there in 1999. Mr. Yonko has scars on his arms, legs and neck, reputedly a result of torture. He fled to Cameroon, a more stable nation, and attended college.

He then fled to the United States, he said in court papers, seeking asylum because he learned in college “about respect for human liberty and freedom that reigns in this country.”

However, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials said Mr. Yonko’s story was full of holes and that they couldn’t verify his identity. They denied him asylum and jailed him, citing national security concerns.

Mr. Yonko was ordered deported, but ICE said it couldn’t find a country to take him without identification.

A telephone message left with the immigration department wasn’t returned, but officials have said that it was department policy not to release information on a deportee’s release.

The court record shows that a plane ticket in Mr. Yonko’s name was issued for the flight to Cameroon.

Immigration officials said in court papers last month that Mr. Yonko “had no passport, birth certificate, identity card, driver’s license, student card or any indicia of his identity,” and supplied an array of false information.

The agency also questioned Mr. Yonko’s travels before he arrived in Virginia. Flight documents showed that in January 2003 he flew from Cameroon to Paris to Morocco, back to Paris and then to Washington Dulles International Airport, all within four days and without a passport.

Mr. Yonko said he paid for phony travel documents in Cameroon and that he didn’t show officials those papers upon his arrival. He acknowledged the phony documents to ICE months later. He also provided false background information and couldn’t answer basic questions about the Ivory Coast, where he said he was born.

“He also did not know what the main three African languages are in the Ivory Coast,” ICE said in court documents.

In November 2003, the Ivory Coast Embassy said that proof of Mr. Yonko’s Ivorian nationality “had not yet been established” and that “it was highly unlikely that Yonko was a citizen of the Ivory Coast.”

Cameroon, which finally agreed to take him, issued travel documents for Mr. Yonko in March but he never received them, court records show. When they were reissued last month, ICE made the flight arrangements on the government’s tab, court records show.

“Why didn’t they do this two years ago?” Mr. Yonko said Tuesday evening. “I only wanted somewhere to go rather than stay in jail.”

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