Resolute Lawyers Help South Sudanese Dissident Win Asylum

By Jack Rodgers | October 13, 2023, 4:35 PM EDT ·

man in suit at airport with two children

South Sudanese political dissident and peace activist Peter Biar Ajak arrives at Washington Dulles International Airport with sons Deng Ajak, left, and Baraka Ajak in July 2020. Ajak spent two years as a political prisoner in South Sudan and, following his release, fled the country, pursued by government agents. (AP Photo/Luis M. Alvarez)

When South Sudan's president bowed to global political pressure in January 2020 and pardoned noted peace activist Peter Biar Ajak after two years of imprisonment, it wasn't the end of the story. Instead, soon after his release, Ajak was told that his country's leader wanted him abducted or killed.

smiling woman in suit

Renata Parras

smiling man in suit

Diogo Metz

Reunited with his family, Ajak, a former World Bank economist, saw his home in South Sudan surrounded by military vehicles and the movements of his wife and three children tracked as agents tried to provoke violent confrontations to create a pretext to capture or kill them. After a month in hiding, the family fled to Nairobi, Kenya, but a government hit squad followed, he told Law360 Pulse.

After several tense months hiding in Nairobi as the South Sudanese blamed Ajak for instigating violent protests, he turned to governmental affairs law firm Perseus Strategies LLC and its managing director, Jared Genser. The pair had first started working together in 2018 after Ajak's arrest, and Genser played a major role helping secure his release from prison.

Now he proved vital to obtaining Ajak's family's humanitarian parole t— a temporary status granted by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services — allowing them to escape to Washington in July 2020.

Since humanitarian parole lasts for only a year, Ajak ended up turning to Paul Hastings attorneys Renata Parras and Diogo Metz to navigate what became a nearly three-year fight for asylum that finally ended in September, as the U.S. government granted the family's applications.

In a recent interview with Law360 Pulse, Parras, who serves as Paul Hastings' Environmental, Social and Governance Counsel and heads up the firm's pro bono efforts, said the odyssey was "a true example of how broken our asylum process is in the United States."

She noted that for over two years, she and her colleague were unable to get any information about the reason for the delays in processing the applications.

"We had support letters from some of the highest levels of government in other agencies like the State Department, but they couldn't resolve the simple background checks for Peter, and that's where he was stuck," said Parras. "And that's sort of inexcusable."

Metz, an associate in the firm's white collar defense group, agreed.

"I think that is extremely frustrating when we try … [to] be the shining city on the hill and we can't even help those who are trying to advocate for these rights that we consider inalienable," he said.

Ajak connected with Paul Hastings through an agent with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security who contacted him through Genser as the agent investigated a possible human rights violation in South Sudan.

Parras, who spent more than a decade in top legal roles at Homeland Security before transitioning to private practice, was later contacted about the possibility of assisting in Ajak's asylum bid. 

As he and Parras took on the case, Metz said they worked to prepare stand-alone applications for Ajak, his wife and their three children. The effort was "herculean," Metz said, as the team had to not only submit various forms for each person, but really get to know Ajak and his family and spend time with them to help them make their case.

"Not only did we have to get one story from Peter, but we had to get his wife's story and understand what her independent story is, not what is Peter's story through the eyes of his wife, but get every detail," Metz said.

One additional complication was the fact that Parras and Metz were trying to complete the applications in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, and were forced, at least at first, to interact with Ajak and his family remotely.

"At some point we said, 'Ditch the Zoom, we're just going to drive out to Peter's place with two lawyers, and we're just going to sit there for three hours at a time,'" Metz said. "Sometimes I was holding one of his kids in my arms while I was talking to his wife and stuff. We really got to know them very well."

The plan was to have the five separate applications buttress one another, but Metz said that Citizenship and Immigration Services initially only processed Ajak's application.

This made things more difficult for Ajak's wife, Nyathon, who, without her own asylum application number, was unable to take advantage of a 90-day expedited period for first-time applicants to secure a work visa.

"There were all these issues, and every time we reached out — radio silence," Metz said.

For Ajak, however, being stuck in bureaucratic purgatory in the U.S. immigration system was preferable to what he experienced during his imprisonment in South Sudan and subsequent escape from Nairobi.

Ajak, a peace activist and advocate for free and fair elections who founded several youth-focused organizations in South Sudan, was detained by South Sudanese national security members as he tried to board a plane at Juba International Airport in July 2018.

"As I was going up the stairs, I found the national security agents basically waiting for me, and then they told me they had something they wanted to show me in their office," Ajak said.

Ajak was shown his arrest warrant — which didn't specify any charges — and then shuffled into the back of a windowless vehicle. When the car stopped, he had arrived at Blue House, the headquarters of the country's national security service and one of South Sudan's most notorious prisons.

When he arrived, the prison director told him he had no idea what Ajak had been arrested for. All the same, he said, he was thrown into solitary confinement for a month before learning that he was being investigated for comments he had made criticizing the South Sudanese government on social media and elsewhere.

During his time in solitary confinement, Ajak said, he could hear the agonizing screams of fellow prisoners from late at night until early morning.

"This was an extremely disturbing place to be in," Ajak said. "Torturing, basically from like 10 p.m. to early morning, 5 a.m., you'd hear people screaming in really agony."

Three months after his imprisonment, Ajak was caught in the middle of a 13-hour standoff between guards and prisoners who had managed to disarm their captors.

Ajak ended up helping convince the detainees to surrender their weapons peacefully and aided in communicating their point of view through a Voice of America interview — which Ajak told Law360 he had done at gunpoint.

He was later charged with treason, insurgency, banditry and other crimes for his role in that uprising.

Ajak's situation only got worse. Guards moved him to a cell with no windows. They would turn on the lights in his cell for days on end, causing him to lose track of time. He and his fellow prisoners were forced to sleep on the ground and drink unsanitary water that left Ajak with liver and kidney problems.

They'd do "a lot of other terrible things, just trying to break me," Ajak said. "Sometimes they would take me out and cover my head, you know, all kinds of terrible things that would make me think I was going to be executed."

Ajak's arrest catalyzed an international call for his release from members of the U.S. Congress and global government organizations like the United Nations. Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., and Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., called for Ajak's release in an August 2018 statement, and Rep. Madeleine Dean, D-Pa., called for Ajak's release on the House floor in February 2019.

The government proceeded to convict Ajak in June 2019 for his role in the prison uprising and for causing a panic in Juba as a result of his Voice of America interview. He was transferred to Juba's central prison, but credited with time served for his Blue House detainment, and pardoned by President Salva Kiir Mayardit three weeks before his sentence was set to end.

Even after his release and his exile from South Sudan, the mental and emotional torture for Ajak continued as he received messages that some of those he'd been imprisoned alongside, people who'd become his friends, had been assassinated.

"And when they killed them, they would take pictures of their dead bodies and text them to me, or post them on Facebook and tag me, saying that 'You are next,'" Ajak said.

When he and his family escaped to Washington in July 2020, it was not Ajak's first time in the U.S. He'd previously been a permanent resident in the country, a status he later gave up, and earned a master's of public administration in international development degree from Harvard University in 2009.

Since Ajak had a presence in the country previously, he was already known to the American government as a political activist and economist who'd worked for the South Sudanese government shortly after the country gained its independence in 2011.

"He had a profile that was going to be known, it was going to be interpreted by the U.S. government in one way or another," Parras said. "It could have been interpreted in both a positive [way], and there were potential challenges and pitfalls to the capacities in which Peter served for the South Sudanese government prior to being detained."

Ajak said the delay to his family's asylum application was also detrimental to his fellow South Sudanese. Any chance at bringing democracy back to South Sudan relied on significant external engagement, he said, and the years-long wait prevented Ajak from participating in that global conversation — like attending the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

Ajak, who currently serves as a fellow with the Harvard Kennedy School Belfer Center, said he was gratified to be able to continue that work more fully following his successful asylum bid.

"I can't even imagine what I would be doing without seeing this struggle through, because I've dedicated so much of my life to it. I have seen the suffering of our people, but I still see the hope."

--Editing by Karin Roberts.

Updated: This story has been updated to clarify the scope of Genser's work with Ajak.

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