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It’s not easy being a woman, especially if you’re Congolese and married to a goon with close ties to Mobutu Sese Seko. In March 1998, Diebo Kuna was beaten until she passed out and then raped by her husband, an army major loyal to the late dictator, who died in 1997. Knowing she could find no protection in Kinshasa, Kuna fled alone, two teeth broken and glasses cracked, packing two bags of clothing and a WordPerfect 5.0 manual left over from a job her husband had made her quit. America did not replace Kuna’s cracked glasses. Instead, the Immigration and Naturalization Service detained her for more than two years in a cinderblock building with no yard in a warehouse district of Elizabeth, N.J. But Kuna was lucky to land as pro bono lawyers Jo Anne Adlerstein and Shirley Tang of New York-based Proskauer Rose. Adlerstein and Kuna, each in her early 50s with four children, quickly bonded over snapshots of their families. On visits to the detention center, Adlerstein sneaked in a stick of Chapstick, a bottle of nail polish and one long-stemmed rose. But each time, the authorities found and confiscated the gift (perhaps they feared that Kuna would fashion the lip balm into a shiv) and sternly rebuked the lawyer. “A rose is beauty,” explains Adlerstein, “and in that place there is no beauty.” Kuna reciprocated the only way she could. She learned origami and made paper pineapples as gifts for her lawyers. More profoundly, when Adlerstein was diagnosed with breast cancer, Kuna gave her lawyer moral support and a reason to live. Adlerstein told her client, “I’m going to stay alive because I’ve got to get you out of here.” She overcame her illness and delivered on both promises. Adlerstein found a Zairean statute forbidding married women to rent or work without permission. Seeking to introduce the statute as new evidence at the asylum hearing, she appeared in court bald, without her wig, consciously using her appearance as a weapon for her client. But an immigration judge denied their application for asylum. Kuna’s other lawyers, Professor Lori Nessel of Seton Hall Law School and her student Denise Visconti, won a stay and, invoking the United Nations Convention against Torture, persuaded an immigration judge in August to block her deportation. Diebo Kuna moved into Jo Anne Adlerstein’s home, and the lawyer brought her friend right into the voting booth with her on Nov. 7. One of the other lawyers took Kuna to visit the Statue of Liberty. The taste of freedom was bittersweet. Because she entered the country under the U.N. convention rather than under asylum, Kuna cannot yet work, and she cannot bring her children (now in Canada) into the United States. “Everyone knows the message of that statute is freedom,” she says, in her newly learned English. “I am free, but I don’t have freedom.” In the bellwether case of In re R.A., the Board of Immigration Appeals ruled in June 1999, by a 10-to-5 vote, that a Guatemalan woman who had suffered horrible domestic abuse did not qualify for asylum because she was not a member of an identifiable social group. On Dec. 7, the INS proposed new regulations that seemingly would allow victims of abuse to qualify for asylum if their own government fails to protect them. R.A.’s pro bono lawyer, Jane Kroesche of New York’s Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, says that the proposed regulations are inadequate because they do not explicitly overrule R.A. or make clear R.A.’s own fate, and they may be abandoned by the incoming Bush administration. A better solution, urged by a coalition of 51 nonprofits, 49 professors and eight U.S. senators, would be for Janet Reno to reverse R.A. personally. Just before Christmas, President Clinton pardoned 62 people in various cases. Clinton is reportedly also weighing clemency for such controversial figures as Michael Milken, the onetime junk-bond king, who is backed by a Democratic donor. If the president is truly ambivalent about U.S. incarceration policy, as he told Rolling Stone, he could find many inmates and detainees more deserving of executive relief. He could start by asking Reno to grant asylum to abused women. Now, that would be a legacy.

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