Thursday, May 31, 2007

Texan faces deportation in Africa war crimes case

Sierra Leone native Samuel "Sam" Kambo looks like a snapshot of the model citizen: Honors college student. Exemplary employee. Family man. A leader.

But to the U.S. government, the Texas transplant's presence in the United States has suddenly become a matter of concern — 14 years after it first let him into the country.

Kambo — who settled in Austin with his Sierra Leonean wife and has four U.S.-born children — is in a jail in San Antonio fighting an attempt to deport him. This comes years after he informed the U.S. government that he was part of a group that overthrew a corrupt dictatorial regime in his native country in the early 1990s.

The government accuses him of participating in war crimes, which Kambo, 38, vehemently denies.

His unusual case, scheduled for trial today in San Antonio's immigration court, has pitted his supporters against an immigration system they accuse of unjustly punishing a man with good moral fiber.

"I don't understand Sierra Leone politics," said Robert Cullick, one of Kambo's co-workers at the Lower Colorado River Authority in Austin. "All I know is there's a man in front of me of integrity."

For years, the government opened the door for Kambo.

The State Department granted him visas to come to Texas to study and work after the 1992 coup. His previous employer applied on his behalf for his permanent residency. But when he showed up for his green card interview last October, immigration officials in San Antonio denied his petition, jailed him and put him in "removal" proceedings.

They cited as a reason his membership in the National Provisional Ruling Council, a military junta that ousted Sierra Leone President Joseph Momoh.

The government's immigration lawyers in San Antonio claim in their court pleadings that Kambo's presence in the United States is "an affront to civilized society."

The NPRC ruled Sierra Leone from April 1992 to 1996. In immigration court filings, Kambo maintains he quit the group in 1994 because of disagreements over how it was running Sierra Leone. He also argues that he wanted to make peace with rebel forces, but the majority in the NPRC wanted to fight.

In a 2005 letter to the government lawyers, the State Department said Kambo was one of eight soldiers in the inner circle of the NPRC.

"The ruling NPRC government took severe actions against rebels. Public humiliation, summary execution of prisoners and displays of rebel heads (and other body parts) were not uncommon," the letter said.

Kambo is not linked directly to any of the war crimes.

Kambo's attorney, Simon Azar-Farr of San Antonio, said Kambo readily admits he was part of the coup.

"He also agrees that a government makes mistakes in that maybe the proper attention is not paid to infrastructure or all of those matters, but in terms of the accusation that he was involved in genocide, torture or extrajudicial killings, he has always categorically denied any such claim," Azar-Farr said.

Kambo's wife of 14 years, Hanaan, said her husband did not have leadership roles while in the NPRC.

"He was disillusioned with the group. Things were not working out," she said of his reasons for quitting.

To those familiar with Sierra Leone politics, Kambo was the cool head trying to make his country better.

"Kambo was the only guy in the group who had the courage to quit," said Carl Schieren, who was a consultant to the United Nations in the 1990s and an expert on Africa. "That's something no one wants to recognize. He was on a much higher moral plane than the others."

Schieren helped administer a U.N. diplomatic program that gave scholarships to NPRC members to study abroad. Kambo was one of the scholarship recipients, enabling him to help pay for his engineering education at the University of Texas at Austin, where he graduated with honors. He later obtained a master's degree in business administration from UT.

At his job, Kambo excelled, was chosen for a leadership program and gained the respect of his fellow employees, who have been supporting his family financially and morally.

Hanaan Kambo hopes all the good her husband has shown convinces the immigration judge hearing his case that he should be allowed to stay.

"We don't know if justice will prevail. We're hoping. We're praying." Hanaan Kambo said. "We just want to be together as a family."