ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) – For more than three years, a mentally disabled teenager has been seeking asylum in the United States, spending much of that time locked in a jail for adults while the federal government has tried to have him deported to his native Guinea.

This week, the case of Malik Jarno, who arrived at Washington’s Dulles International Airport in 2001 alone and carrying a fake passport, may finally be resolved. The teen claims he will be persecuted if he returns to Africa; the government has disputed his story.

Jarno has attracted widespread support from human-rights advocates and even from 70 members of Congress, who have asked the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to grant asylum. U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., has introduced legislation that would grant Jarno an immigration green card regardless of the two-day immigration court trial’s outcome.

Several lawyers have taken his case on a pro bono basis, donating millions of dollars worth of legal work. One attorney even traveled to Africa to gather evidence.

Advocates estimate that about 5,000 children annually enter the United States unaccompanied by adults. But while Jarno’s case has been held up as an example of the difficulties such children face, his treatment has been unusually harsh, said Bill Frelick, director of refugee services for Amnesty International.

“We have certainly been critical of INS, but his case has been really awful,” he said, noting that for most of 2001 immigration authorities lost track of his case while he sat in jail. “He was completely lost in the shuffle. His first year here must have been a total nightmare.”

Jarno’s supporters say the facts overwhelmingly support his bid for asylum. His father, the imam of a neighborhood mosque that was destroyed in tribal conflict, was killed in prison. His mother had died earlier, so he was sent to Europe to live with relatives.

However, they say, the relatives were unwilling or unable to care for him, in part because of his mild mental retardation, so a friend put Jarno, then 16, on a flight to America with a fake passport.

Immigration authorities at Dulles detected the false passport and he was detained pending removal proceedings. Federal authorities also have expressed doubts that Jarno is who he claims to be.

Because the government did not believe Jarno was a minor, he spent most of his first three years in adult jails, including the Piedmont Regional Jail in Farmville.

Jarno sued in U.S. District Court over his treatment at Piedmont, claiming he was beaten and once was sprayed at point-blank range with so much pepper spray that it dripped off his face.

Jarno’s jailers denied he was abused and the lawsuit was dismissed. He was later sent to a halfway house for refugees in York, Pa.

Some of Jarno’s supporters say the widespread attention and public support Jarno has received has actually worked against him, causing the Homeland Security Department to dig in its heels and fight a case that would otherwise be clear cut.

“If the facts as known were presented to an immigration judge, he would be a shoo-in for asylum, if not for the accrued political baggage,” said Frelick, of Amnesty International.

Chris Bentley, spokesman for the U.S. Department of Customs and Immigration Services, said he could not discuss the specifics of the case. He said that while sometimes it can take years to sort out an asylum claim, “the vast majority are decided at a much quicker pace.”

Jarno’s lawyers hope to have people who knew him testify by telephone from Guinea about the potential persecution he would face if deported, but government lawyers might seek to have that testimony disallowed.

The government also is apparently disputing that Jarno is retarded. Jarno’s lawyers say several intelligence tests have shown mild retardation, but government lawyers say the test scores are affected by language and cultural differences.

AP-ES-08-07-04 1452EDT

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