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Monday, July 05, 2004

Newsday.com - Belarus to Brooklyn -- by way of jail

Newsday.com - New York City News
By Robert Polner
Staff Writer

July 4, 2004, 5:51 PM EDT


Val Tourchin's odyssey from Belarus to Brooklyn sounds like something out of a Cold War spy novel.

In the former Soviet republic, there was the constant eavesdropping. The mysterious ransacking of his apartment. The whisper campaigns about his private life. The midnight escape across the border of his homeland into Poland. "Incredibly relieved, are you kidding" is how Tourchin, 35, a former businessman, said he felt upon arriving in New York City -- "the home of the free" -- on an August day in 1996.











That relief was rapidly erased by the harsh reality of doing whatever it took just to get by. After shouldering a string of below-minimum-wage cleaning and construction jobs in New York and Florida, Tourchin became ensnared by the post-9/11 tightening of immigration laws and spent almost two years in New Jersey jails.

Tourchin, who recounted his story in minute detail sitting on a park bench in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn, said his imprisonment was more in keeping with the authoritarian ways of the old USSR than the democratic values of the United States. It rankled all the more, he said, because he stood up for those values in post-communist Belarus at great risk to his career and his person.

Tourchin was released from the Hudson County Jail in Kearny, N.J., last August after a senior federal judge in New Jersey ruled that he had been held unlawfully. He acted as his own counsel, carefully researching his case in the jail's law library, writing to the judge and staging a hunger strike.

"I spent almost two years locked up for the crime of being born in another country," Tourchin said bitterly in a thick Russian accent. "The system made a mistake. They kept me in jail for as long as possible, and they even would have sent me back into the hands of my tormenters, I feel, just to cover up their mistakes."

U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement in New Jersey, part of the Department of Homeland Security, did not respond to requests for comment. Immigration attorneys say the abridgement of immigrants' legal rights was common in the "clampdown climate" precipitated by Sept. 11.

Back in 1991, with the collapse of communism, Tourchin's home country of 10.3 million people east of Poland became independent of Moscow.

Although Belarus' president, Aleksandr Lukashenko, placed the country on a path toward "market socialism" in 1995, it has seen little reform, according to a CIA analysis last year.

On the contrary, Lukashenko expanded the state's right to intervene in the management of private enterprises, issuing arbitrary changes in regulations and arresting businessmen and factory owners deemed disruptive, the analysis found. Tourchin said his food-export business underwent 22 inspections in less than a year in 1995, a form of legal harassment to force him to cede partial control of his company to the government.

When that didn't work, he maintains that he was driven by government agents to a remote area and forced to watch as another man, a stranger, was shot to death.

"This was KGB," he said.

As he tells it, the officials played him a bugged recording of himself telling his girlfriend that he was gay and had a crush on his male bodyguard. The word was deliberately spread after his return from the woods, Tourchin said, and many of his male office employees, in a country where homosexual relationships were illegal, quit in scorn.

"In truth the government couldn't care less that I am gay," he said, stroking his dirty-blond goatee. "They only cared about my refusal to cave in to their pressure and how this would look to others. They couldn't afford to let me win this fight with them."

One night, after resolving to leave the country, Tourchin says he tape-recorded the sound of typing at his computer and played the cassette as he slipped out a back door.

His driver took him to the American embassy in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, to get his visa and passport.

Tourchin returned to Grodno, his small city outside of Minsk. Though certain he was being tailed, he made a classic espionage-novel dash to Poland's border.

There, he said, he was abruptly turned back. But Tourchin had a valuable connection: His girlfriend's father knew the supervisor of the border guards as his neighbor. As a result of the father's pre-dawn phone call to this man, Tourchin was allowed to leave Belarus.

He headed straight for the airport in Warsaw and got on a plane to New York.

During his early days here, Tourchin said, he was filled with paranoia. He laid low, staying out of heavily Russian neighborhoods in Brooklyn for fear he might run into someone tied to the KGB.

His U.S. visa expired and he applied for political asylum. To his chagrin, an immigration judge turned him down, saying his troubles in his home country amounted to an isolated extortion attempt.

It was then that Tourchin found himself behind bars, facing possible deportation. He was held for 22 months in all, in four New Jersey county jails. Desperate, he began a hunger strike early last August.

On the third day of his strike, his neatly handwritten letters to the court spelling out his legal arguments for his release got the attention of U.S. District Judge Dickinson Debevoise in Newark.

The judge, in a decision dated Aug. 8, noted that Tourchin had filed a timely appeal within 30 days of the rejection of his asylum bid, and with that appeal pending -- and as a noncriminal immigrant, to boot -- he never should have been locked up.

Debevoise ordered the Justice Department to release him.

Tourchin walked out of the Hudson County Jail a free man that same day, almost seven years from his arrival in New York. But on appeal, he still must demonstrate that he would face near-certain persecution by Belarus' "mafia, authoritarian regime" if he were forced to return home.

Based on his understanding of the law as well as his distrust of immigration lawyers, Tourchin said he will act as his own attorney whenever his case comes up for a hearing.

"I never really wanted to leave home. I was reasonably well-off," said Tourchin, who found an apartment in Jersey City and a job at a cabinet-making factory in Brooklyn after getting out of jail. "But the Belarus government made life terrible for me; it was horrible pressure. I believe I would have been killed within two years, at most, if I had stayed."

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