A lawyer for a 17-year-old at the center of a confrontation between the U.S. and Russian governments said a U.S. official may have violated international law by telling the New York Times that the teenager is seeking asylum on the basis of his sexual orientation.
"We're shocked that an American official would ... violate international human rights law and out him as an asylum-seeker," the lawyer, Susan Reed of the Michigan Immigrants Rights Center, told BuzzFeed News.
U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services had declined to comment on the case when Russian officials publicized the case last week. Immigration Services cited policy that prohibits government officials from discussing individual asylum cases. Details in this case are especially sensitive, Reed said, because it concerns a minor and because the case is ongoing.
An Obama administration spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Reed would not comment on the grounds for which the teen was seeking to stay in the United States or even if he was seeking asylum when she first spoke to press last week. The story made headlines when the Russian Foreign Ministry announced it was pulling out of a 21-year-old exchange program because the student had not returned to Russia when he was scheduled to. Russian officials told state-run media that the child had been "seduced" by a "pair of old homosexuals" while in the U.S., and had sought asylum because of his "nontraditional sexual orientation."
On Saturday, the New York Times reported that the fact that the boy "chose not to return home and sought asylum on the basis of his sexual orientation" had been confirmed by an "American official, who was not authorized to comment on the case and so spoke on the condition of anonymity."
Reed told BuzzFeed News on Wednesday "we don't deny" the Times report. Now that he had been outed by the government official, Reed provided additional information about the case to refute Russian accounts of the incident.
She challenged the account put forward by Russia's child rights ombudsman, Pavel Astakhov, who said last week: "A child who has a mother in Russia was illegally put up for adoption, and the boy was handed over to a homosexual American couple." Subsequent reports said the child had been emancipated from his parents by U.S. courts.
Neither is true, Reed said.
"He is in federal custody, and was placed in a foster home because he is an unaccompanied minor asylum-seeker and that is standard," she said. This is "a licensed foster home that is headed by two dads."
Reed criticized the Russian reports for focusing on the sexual orientation of the adults involved; Russian officials had claimed to the New York Times that she and her co-counsel are "also of nontraditional sexual orientation."
"In fact, I am very traditional," she said. "Russia is trying to make this case about some person or persons in the U.S. who are gay. But this case is about a young man who is afraid to return to Russia because Russia persecutes people who are gay."
She would not comment on Russian reports that the teen's mother is seeking his return to Russia, but said that his parents "are under tremendous pressure. One should not accept the Russian government's suggestions at face value."
J. Lester Feder is a world correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC. His secure PGP fingerprint is 2353 DB68 8AA6 92BD 67B8 94DF 37D8 0A6F D70B 7211
Contact J. Lester Feder at email@example.com.
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