WASHINGTON—A coalition of human rights advocacy groups has called on members of the Senate Judiciary Committee to investigate the United States Customs and Immigration Service’s  announcement that it intends to deny Syrian writer, scholar, and human rights activist Dr. Radwan Ziadeh’s application for asylum, and urge the immigration service to reverse its decision. In a letter, PEN America, Freedom House, Human Rights First, Human Rights Watch, the Middle East Studies Association, Refugees International, and Scholars at Risk expressed dismay at the immigration service’s claim that Dr. Ziadeh’s convening of Syrian opposition groups to design a plan for Syria to transition to democracy following an end to the civil war there somehow constituted “material support” for terrorism.

Ziadeh, a scholar and human rights activist, and long a trusted source of knowledge about the Syrian civil war in Washington, D.C., has worked in the United States and overseas to provide informed perspectives to policymakers and engage stakeholders in peacebuilding efforts. In 2011, Ziadeh organized a series of working groups to develop plans for a democratic transition, and invited representatives from Syrian opposition groups to participate. He also arranged funding for their travel and expenses to attend two conferences in Istanbul through a Canadian government grant.  The immigration service called these conference invitations and payment for airfare, hotels, and the documents passed out at the convenings as ”material support for terrorism.”  Despite the service itself finding that Dr. Ziadeh has a well-founded fear of persecution were he forced to return to Syria, the immigration service stated that it intended to deny Ziadeh’s application for asylum because of this “material support.”

Crucially, none of the opposition groups involved have been expressly identified as terrorist groups by the State Department, and one of the groups, the Free Syrian Army, has received aid from the United States government. On the contrary, the immigration service claims the groups are undesignated “Tier III” terrorist groups under immigration law, which can be labeled as such at the sole discretion of the United States Customs and Immigration Service.

“The decision to deny Dr. Ziadeh asylum being based on a false and problematic misinterpretation of his peacebuilding and negotiation efforts is not just an injustice to him but to all who seek to engage parties to conflicts in constructive dialogue, and risk their lives doing so,” said Suzanne Nossel, PEN America executive director. “This decision infringes on his freedom of expression, freedom of association, and his right to impart and receive information—we urge Congress to investigate the U.S. Customs and Immigration Service decision, to express its support for a reversal, and to ensure that such a travesty can never happen again.  Peacemakers must be free to make peace, even with armed opposition groups, and should be welcomed in America.”  

PEN America has previously expressed concern about the denial of political asylum to Radwan Ziadeh.

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