Egyptian activist wins in court after S. Korean immigration officials falsified his asylum interview

Posted on : 2021-12-07 17:37 KST Modified on : 2021-12-07 17:46 KST
This ruling is the first time that a court has ordered South Korea to pay damages after immigration officials mishandled the testimony of an asylum seeker and rejected their application
Egypt native Musab, 29, poses for a photo outside the Seoul Central District Court on Monday alongside his lawyer and an organizer with NANCEN Refugee Rights Center after winning his case seeking damages after his asylum interview had been falsified. (provided by NANCEN)
Egypt native Musab, 29, poses for a photo outside the Seoul Central District Court on Monday alongside his lawyer and an organizer with NANCEN Refugee Rights Center after winning his case seeking damages after his asylum interview had been falsified. (provided by NANCEN)

“The defendants are collectively ordered to pay 37,473,257 won to the plaintiff.”

Given his limited understanding of Korean, 29-year-old Darwish Musab wasn’t able to fully understand the judge when he read his decision in a Seoul courtroom at 9:50 am on Friday. But he got an idea of what was happening from the smiles that appeared on the faces of his attorney and of activists from NANCEN, a refugee rights group: his legal battle that had gone on for three years and two months had ended in victory.

Lee Jeong-kwon, a judge in the 208th civil law division at the Seoul Central District Court, in Seocho District, found in favor of Musab, an Egyptian who had filed for damages against an interpreter surnamed Jang and an investigator at the Seoul Immigration Office surnamed Cho. Jang and Cho had been in charge of interviewing Musab when he applied for asylum in South Korea.

This is the first time a court has ordered the South Korean state to pay damages after public servants falsified the testimony of an asylum seeker and rejected their request for refugee status.

“Defendants Jang and Cho both defied their duties when they included false information in a shoddy report about the asylum interview, whether they did so deliberately or through gross negligence. Under the State Compensation Act, the Republic of Korea, as the defendant, is responsible for compensating the damages suffered by the plaintiff through this illegal act collectively with defendants Jang and Cho,” the court said.

“Significantly, this was the first that [the courts] have recognized the state’s responsibility for poorly handling an asylum application,” said Kwon Yeong-sil, Musab’s attorney. Kwon works for the Dongcheon Foundation, an organization that provides pro bono legal support.

Musab is a human rights activist who directed documentaries for a human rights organization in Egypt. He worked for an organization that played a leading role in the Arab Spring of 2011 and was arrested several times during demonstrations against the government.

“I was targeted by the state security forces, and the last few weeks that I spent in Egypt were particularly dangerous. The only thing I could do was to come to Korea, which didn’t require a travel visa and which has laws and institutions in place for asylum seekers,” Musab told the Hankyoreh on Monday.

After coming to Korea with his wife in May 2016, Musab wrote about his situation in his application for refugee status. But the written transcript of his interview was unrecognizably different from his application, which was then rejected.

According to the interview transcript, Musab had said he’d applied for refugee status so that he could legally stay in Korea for a long time while earning money. Musab was also quoted as saying that none of the reasons he’d written on his asylum application were true.

When Musab filed an appeal on the grounds that the interview transcript had been falsified, his appeal was rejected. In the end, he filed an administrative suit.

After evidence emerged that Musab was not the only one whose asylum review had been mishandled, the Ministry of Justice carried out an internal review. It eventually overturned the decision to reject Musab’s application for refugee status and carried out another interview regarding his application.

Musab was granted refugee status in March 2018, and the courts have sided with him as well. Last year, the National Human Rights Commission of Korea found that the Ministry of Justice was responsible for the human rights violations that had occurred in the falsification of Musab’s interview transcript.

Musab didn’t stop there, however. In September 2018, he filed a damages lawsuit against the South Korean state.

“Many people thought that [the lawsuit] was an absurd idea. But that was the only choice for someone like me who has fought for the rights of many people including myself since the age of 17. I thought I needed to prove what had happened and make an effort to ensure it didn’t happen again, not only for me and my wife’s rights, but also for the rights of all asylum seekers,” Musab said.

The trial, which lasted more than three years, was as stressful as having to undergo an asylum interview dozens of times. The public servants who were on trial argued that there was no problem with the interview transcript because Musab had signed it and written in Arabic that he had confirmed through an interpreter that the transcript was consistent with what he’d said.

Musab, who had no idea what was written in the interview transcript because he didn’t speak Korean, said he was “shocked” to see the public servants claim they’d done their best on the asylum interview.

“The plaintiff argued that the Justice Ministry was in violation of the law when it streamlined most applications by asylum seekers from Arab countries without looking closely into their circumstances, but unfortunately the court didn’t make a decision about that aspect of the ministry’s behavior,” said Kwon, his attorney.

The National Human Rights Commission of Korea concluded that while individual misbehavior was one factor, the Ministry also bore some responsibility because it had assigned each public servant at immigration a monthly quota of 40-44 cases and ordered them to submit an explanation in writing if they failed to meet their quota.

Even so, Musab expressed gratitude to Korea. He’s currently making a documentary about the life of refugees in Korea and is doing work related to refugees with a nonprofit.

“It’s Korea that saved and protected me when I was in danger, and it’s the home and birthplace of our four-year-old daughter. My profound love and respect for Korea are why I’m working hard to improve human rights here,” he said.

By Lee Woo-yun, staff reporter

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