In the three and a half years since I've been following Richard Sitcha's case, I admit to maintaining a low-level—and uncharacteristic—degree of optimism that things would turn out all right for him.
In 2001, the Cameroon native had come to the U.S. and settled in Hartford, fleeing the oppressive, abusive government in his homeland. Sitcha says he'd left home after being arrested and tortured for helping the families of a group of young men—dubbed the Bepanda Nine by international human rights groups—who'd been killed by government security forces. His story apparently satisfied the U.S. government, which granted him asylum in early 2003.
But the relief was short-lived; nine months later, Sitcha was informed that his case had been reopened. He was summoned to court on Sept. 18, 2003, where a judge revoked his asylum, asserting that his application was no longer deemed credible. He was promptly arrested for immigration violations, thanks to tougher, post-September 11 policies, and has spent the past four years in jail, desperately fighting to stay in the U.S. He has never been charged with a crime.
On the surface, there's not much about Sitcha's case that would inspire optimism. He and his supporters have failed to get fully satisfying answers about what prompted the government to suddenly doubt his asylum application. (Court records indicate one factor may have been testimony from an embassy worker in Cameroon disputing Sitcha's claim of involvement in the Bepanda case; the Department of Homeland Security, which has jurisdiction over the case, did not respond to an interview request from the Advocate.) He's been bounced among several jails, including Greenfield and, currently, Plymouth. He was beaten by a cellmate in one place and, he says, abused by guards in another. Throughout, he and his friends have lived in fear of his deportation back to Cameroon, where they fear he could be killed by government forces.
Last month came some devastating news: Sitcha's most recent application for a stay of deportation was denied, opening the door for him to be returned to Cameroon at any time.
Perhaps I've been able to maintain some shred of optimism about Sitcha's case because of the people who've rallied behind him.
Sitcha may have been a stranger in a strange land when he arrived in the U.S. six years ago, but he didn't stay that way for long. He quickly made friends in Hartford's African-immigrant community and at St. Anne-Immaculate Conception, the church where the devout Catholic began attending mass. His church friends have formed the core of his support group, joined by devoted Valley activists who learned of his case and began visiting him while he was held in the Greenfield jail. They formed a Sitcha Defense Fund, raising $27,000 for legal fees and seeking, with limited luck, attorneys who take on his case.
Even now, they are lobbying Sens. Ted Kennedy and John Kerry for help, hoping for a stay of deportation to allow them time to find a third country that will accept Sitcha or at least some guarantee that he will be protected if he is sent back to Cameroon. (The committee can be contacted at email@example.com or by writing to P.O. Box 1263, Greenfield, MA 01302.)
I met Sitcha at the Greenfield jail on a Saturday morning in the summer of 2004. As a reporter, I couldn't confirm many of the things he told me about his experience in his homeland. But I did see the scars on the bottom of his feet, the result of a jailhouse beating with the blunt end of a machete after his arrest in Cameroon, he said. I'd also read damning reports—including one from the U.S. State Department—about the human rights violations and abuses inflicted by the government there, including the Bepanda Nine case.
And I was able to spend a few hours getting to know Sitcha. He spoke animatedly, and persuasively, about all he'd been through, poring over a pile of legal documents he'd brought with him. He talked about the strength he'd found through his religious faith and his loyal circle of friends. He spoke of his distrust in the legal system, his fears about what would happen if he was sent back to Cameroon, and his disappointment in the realities that contradicted the American ideals he'd learned about at home.
"I can't lie to you—I'm very surprised for America," Sitcha told me that morning. "I went to school; I learned international law; I learned the American system. … It's not what I learned in school. I cannot understand how they can put someone in prison for nothing."
Neither can I. But more than six years after the September 11 attacks allowed the government to declare open season on our basic civil rights, I should no longer be surprised by it. Out of respect for Sitcha and his friends, I hold out hope for a last-minute reprieve, a long-overdue hopeful development in his case. But if it doesn't come, I have no business being surprised.