- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 23, 2005

A Chinese woman has been charged in federal court with engaging in a counterfeit passport conspiracy and lying about being a Buddhist nun in her pursuit of asylum in the United States.

An indictment handed up in U.S. District Court in Alexandria said the 30-year-old woman deliberately misled immigration authorities who granted her asylum in 2003 after nearly six months of detention.

The woman, who goes by the single name Sonam, is expected to turn herself in to authorities today, said an official with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

In August 2003, she was detained on her arrival at Washington Dulles International Airport after ICE officials found that the Nepalese passport she had presented was bogus.

A federal immigration judge granted Sonam asylum after she argued that she was a devout Buddhist nun and would be jailed and tortured if she was sent back to her native China. The government, whose appeal of the asylum was dismissed last year, filed charges against her in federal court on March 16.

Sonam and others — only one of whom, Kelsang Gurung, is named in court papers — “knowingly, willfully, and unlawfully combined, conspired, confederated and agreed … to falsely make, forge counterfeit, mutilate and alter any passport or instrument purporting to be a passport with intent that the same may be used,” the indictment said.

The charges describe a scheme in which Sonam’s Nepalese passport had been used on five previous occasions by the co-conspirators entering the United States in New York and Los Angeles. The indictment also charges her with perjury, saying she lied to an immigration judge about being a Buddhist nun.

“The defendant did not enter a nunnery or monastery in Nepal and did not become a Buddhist nun prior to leaving Nepal for the United States,” it says.

Michael J. Garcia, the Department of Homeland Security assistant secretary who heads ICE, said, “Anytime that you have identity fraud, document fraud, you have a homeland security, national security issue.”

A “classic example,” he said, is Ramzi Yousef, who sought asylum with a fake Iraqi passport in 1992. Yousef, who was set free pending a hearing, was convicted later of masterminding the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.

During Sonam’s initial detention in 2003 and early 2004, ICE faced criticism for treating her like a terrorist suspect. After interviewing her in jail, The Washington Post reported she had “told a story of flight and fear.”

“She said her father had been jailed in Tibet and tortured with electric shock,” a Post story said. “She described hiding from police patrols as she made her way across the Himalaya Mountains to Nepal, where she lived for three years.”

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