Columbia Law School Press Release: U.S. Department of Homeland Security Issues Grant of Asylum, Highlighting Dangers for GLBT Individuals in Mauritania and Worldwide

Columbia Law School’s Sexuality and Gender Law Clinic has won asylum in the United States for Ahmed A., a gay man who feared persecution because of his sexual orientation if he had been forced to return to his native Mauritania.

The grant of asylum, issued by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, highlights the perils for gay people who live in the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, a country in West Africa. In Mauritania, homosexuality is punishable by death—both by the government and by the powerful tribal communities that regulate Mauritanian society.

Mauritania is one of five countries in the world—along with Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Yemen—that impose the death penalty for being gay. In addition, 76 countries prosecuted people based on their sexual orientation as of last year, underscoring the global reach of the practice of state persecution of gay people.

“For nearly 40 years, our client, Ahmed, never felt free,” explains Jane Kim ’11, a clinic student who worked on the case. “His entire life, he changed his behavior to avoid suspicions, beatings, and death by his father, his tribe, and by the Mauritanian government for being gay, for being himself. He lived a private life, trusting very few.”

Last year, Ahmed fled for the United States, terrified for his life. He was referred to Columbia’s Sexuality and Gender Law Clinic by Immigration Equality, a national organization focused on immigration rights for GLBT and HIV-positive individuals.

Seven clinic students—Kim ’11, Elyce Matthews ’11, Jeffrey Yuen LL.M. ’11, Andrea Johnson ’12, Meghna Rajadhyaksha LL.M. ’11, Hillary Schneller ’12, and MiRi Song ’12—assisted Ahmed in applying for asylum. The students spent several months conducting interviews, drafting affidavits, researching country conditions, contacting experts, and preparing the client for his interview with a U.S. government asylum officer.

“One of the difficulties in confronting Mauritania’s violently homophobic law is that reported instances of state or tribal execution are not published,” explains Matthews. “The Mauritanian government and the country’s powerful tribal system often cover up their execution of GLBT individuals, recording other causes of death.”

The students relied on reports by the U.S. government and non-governmental organizations, in addition to the testimony of experts, to document Mauritania’s severe laws and the harsh treatment of and lack of protection for gay people in the country.

“As being gay and assisting gay individuals is forbidden in Mauritania, we faced challenges in collecting corroborating letters from Ahmed’s family and friends,” adds Yuen. “Fortunately, we were able to find several experts who could attest to the dangerous conditions for gay people in Mauritania and to the particular facts of Ahmed’s case.”

In April, the students also accompanied their client to the asylum office in Rosedale, New York, for his interview. After Ahmed’s interview, he and the students were told to expect a decision in his case in two weeks. Six months later, his asylum grant arrived.

“With policy meetings ongoing in Washington, D.C., to step up efforts to protect the thousands of refugees and asylum-seekers persecuted each year for their sexual orientation and gender identity, we are all very relieved to see the U.S. government’s protections for gay asylum-seekers in action,” says Kim.

Columbia Law School’s Sexuality & Gender Law Clinic addresses cutting-edge issues in sexuality and gender law through litigation, legislation, public policy analysis, and other forms of advocacy. Under the guidance of Professor Suzanne Goldberg, clinic students have worked on a wide range of projects, from constitutional litigation to legislative advocacy to immigration cases, to serve both individual and organizational clients in cases involving issues of sexuality and gender law.

For more information, please visit: To contact Professor Suzanne B. Goldberg: call (212) 854- 0411 or email


  1. That is so interesting. Living in Nouakchott for more than three years now, I can assure you that there is a very lively gay scene. Many gays here do not hide their orientation, and love and live quite openly with their partners. Yes, formally homosexuality is forbidden en punishable by death. However, as far as I am aware the law is not actively enforced. That, too, could be an explanation for not finding records of executions as well as for having difficulty finding people to corroborate your story.
    I do not know the particular case of Ahmed, and it could very well be that his family or local community do not accept his homosexuality. I certainly would not want to imply that his o motives to seek asylum are less than sincere. However, I would like you to be aware that his situation isn’t necessarily fully representative of the reality in the country.

  2. Congratulations to Sexuality and Gender Law Clinic for Securing Asylum for Gay Mauritanian Refugee!

  3. Congratulations to Sexuality and Gender Law Clinic for Securing Asylum for Gay Mauritanian Refugee!

  4. Congratulations to Sexuality and Gender Law Clinic for Securing Asylum for Gay Mauritanian Refugee!

  5. Dear Expat-in-Mauritania:

    Despite the scarcity of public information and the fear that individual Mauritanians voiced in supporting a gay asylum-seeker, we submitted a very strong asylum application that included a substantial amount of corroborating evidence, both personal and expert, thanks to our experts, team, and client. Our research on Mauritania’s country conditions included several expert statements and data gathered from various governments and international organizations. All of our evidence affirmed a very different situation for gay Mauritanian locals than the one that you have experienced in your time in Nouakchott. We learned that, under Mauritanian law, the Mauritanian government may prosecute gay people under the auspices of crimes other than their sexual orientation, that tribal communities initiate local executions that are characterized as accidents, and that extrajudicial killings are not uncommon. Further, the very fact that Mauritanian law imposes punishment, indeed, the death penalty, for sexual acts between people of the same sex violates Mauritania’s international human rights obligations—whether or not the law is enforced.

    We learned that the persecution of gay people in Mauritania is perpetrated on several levels: by the government, by tribal communities, and by families and that experiences in Mauritania may vary by nationality and tribal association. Moreover, the government is highly unlikely to protect individuals against violence by non-government actors, such as family or tribe members. I appreciate your comment and I am thankful that your experience in Nouakchott has been different than the reality that our client experienced and that we were able to confirm. Thank you for your interest in our case.

  6. […] Gender & Sexuality Law Blog » Blog Archive » Sexuality and … Columbia Law School's Sexuality and Gender Law Clinic has won asylum in the United States for Ahmed A., a gay man who feared persecution because of his sexual orientation if he had been forced to return to his native … Source: […]

  7. #Mauritius, US #prison: Sexuality and Gender Law Clinic Secures #Asylum for Gay Mauritanian Refugee –

  8. Dear Andrea, given your extensive research, I’m sure that you are also aware that many gays from neighboring countries have fled their home country and settled in Nouakchott, even though the laws in their countries aren’t as repressive as the ones in Mauritania.

    I work for a medium sized foreign company and we happen to employ two gays, one Senegalese and one Mauritanian. They are part of a vibrant and relatively open gay scene. Although their families strongly disapprove of their lifestyle, they experience no threats and they do not feel that the legislation poses a risk to them.

    I’m sorry that your client was so terribly unfortunate with his particular situation.

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