Armenian defecting diver remains uncertain of status in U.S.


LOS ANGELES -- The FBI agent told him there would be no turning back and no guarantee of asylum, but Arsen Djavadian felt he had no choice. The Soviet diver fled the Goodwill Games in Seattle with the help of a stranger, then hid out in Hollywood with a boyhood friend from his native Armenia.

Until last weekend, when he received employment authorization, Djavadian (Ja-VAD-ee-an) was afraid to tell his story for fear that he would be sent back to the Soviet Union.

Djavadian's defection was not without cost. Since he abandoned his country on Aug. 4, his father, Boris, was fired as a government economist, and his brother, Aram, was kicked out of the university he was attending.

But the diver's defection came as no surprise to the Soviets. Djavadian, 23, was jailed twice last year for organizing and participating in demonstrations protesting the Soviet government's refusal to unite the Nagorno Karabakh district in Azerbaijan with the adjacent Soviet republic of Armenia, which borders Turkey and Iran.

The Armenian residents of Nagorno Karabakh -- 80 percent of the population -- claim that they are discriminated against in Azerbaijan.

Djavadian, who once rejected a medal, throwing it to the ground in protest of Soviet treatment of Armenians, is one of many Armenians who want independence from the Soviet Union.

"I want it, so I'm not afraid to say it," Djavadian said.

His outspokenness nearly cost him an indefinite period in jail. After three weeks of horrible treatment last October, he was bailed out by an Armenian coach who convinced police that the Soviet diving team needed him. Then the coach told Djavadian )) that if he ever joined the Armenian protest movement again, the KGB would leave him in jail to rot.

Slowly, Djavadian, the 1989 World Cup bronze medalist, concluded that freedom would require more daring than the handstand dives he performs off the 10-meter platform. He decided to leave his homeland.

The plan was to defect at the Goodwill Games, although Djavadian had no idea how he would do it.

His non-Soviet competitors offered to help, engaging St. Louis sports promoter Joe Farrell, who agreed to facilitate Djavadian's escape from the athletes' village on the University of Washington campus in Seattle.

"We had to keep communication to an absolute minimum," Farrell said. "We didn't want to be seen together. They were already suspicious that [Djavadian] would seek political asylum, and he had been warned.

"We felt his roommate was in some informing post, because he was the trainer instead of another diver."

Farrell's initial contact with Djavadian was through a European diver who served as a messenger. A secret meeting was set up for Aug. 3 for Djavadian, Farrell, an FBI agent, an Immigration and Naturalization Service representative and an interpreter of Russian. An Armenian interpreter was available by phone.

The meeting was designed to answer Djavadian's questions while allowing him the opportunity to change his mind without the Soviets finding out that he had considered defecting.

Farrell told Djavadian to put on a warm-up suit and meet him at a drugstore three blocks from the athletes' village. Farrell watched Djavadian leave the village, made sure he was not followed, then met him.

From there, they took a circuitous car ride to Farrell's hotel.

After the three-hour meeting, Farrell gave Djavadian souvenirs to carry back to the village in case he was questioned about his whereabouts.

Later that day, Djavadian told the messenger to tell Farrell that he wanted to go through with the defection. It was planned for the day before the competition. "We were leaving the next day [after the competition]," Djavadian said. "Everybody knows about my [political] thinking. They would be watching me. Many people are KGB. They know about me."

That night, Farrell and another diver took a rug that Djavadian had brought to sell from Djavadian's room. Farrell took the rug ahead of time so Djavadian would not look conspicuous carrying it out of the village.

The next morning, Djavadian walked to the drugstore with all he could stuff into a small duffel bag. He met Farrell and rode with him to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. A friend of Farrell followed by car, making sure they weren't followed by anyone else.

"I was scared," Djavadian said. "I was thinking maybe some people are going to take me and give me back. I blocked everything out of my mind. All I was thinking about was coming to Los Angeles."

Farrell took Djavadian in through a side door at the airport and hid him in a men's room until the other passengers had boarded the plane bound for Los Angeles.

"We thought there would be KGB at the airport," said Farrell, who had used his name to reserve Djavadian's ticket.

"We took a lot of precautions because the stakes were pretty high. You could look at it from the outside and say it looked too spy-like, but the FBI agent and the immigration authority told us if they took him back he would probably be incarcerated."

Djavadian was terrified on the flight.

"People were looking at me on the plane," he said. "I was thinking, maybe they are KGB. When we landed I was feeling better."

Hakop Adajian, the Armenian friend and former coach who met him at LAX, said Djavadian told him: "Take me out of here."

"I said, 'There is no problem. You are in America.' "

When Djavadian missed practice later that day, the Soviet delegation began searching but the search was called off when the coach found an unsigned note, written by Farrell, saying that Djavadian was safe but would be remaining in the United States.

The soft-spoken Djavadian is still on edge: "Not too much, but still a little bit scared," he said.

Djavadian is guilt-stricken about the way his family has been treated but is hopeful that if he gains citizenship -- which normally requires a five-year wait -- his family will have a better chance of earning refugee status and joining him here.

The possibility remains, however, that Djavadian will be sent back to the Soviet Union. In February, the INS is expected to decide whether to grant him immigrant status.

In his application for political asylum, Djavadian claims to have been persecuted for being Armenian and for his political and religious beliefs -- he was not allowed to practice the Catholic faith in the Soviet Union.

Even within the Soviet diving team there was discrimination, according to Djavadian. He said that the Russian divers were given better food and sports clothing and a larger monthly stipend than Armenians. And when the team traveled, the Russians were given separate rooms, whereas the Armenians shared single, smaller rooms.

Djavadian concludes the application by saying: "Armenia is presently in a state of turmoil with civil unrest. I believe the Soviets are using my relatives as an example and punishing them as a result of my staying in the United States. I fear that I will be imprisoned for the remainder of my life if forced to return to the Soviet Union or Armenia."

According to Djavadian's attorney, William Bennett, this case would have been an "absolute slam dunk" two years ago.

"But now that the political winds have changed, it is now somewhat in question," Bennett said. "The history has been that a Soviet public figure who is successful defecting has been granted asylum freely. But the change in politics may affect his case. I hope not. He's suffered already and his family is suffering."

If Djavadian's application is denied, there is a lengthy appeal process. Another alternative is an immigrant visa.

Djavadian would have to prove that his assistant coaching job at Gymnastic Olympica in Van Nuys, Calif., requires exceptional qualifications. Certainly, Djavadian is uniquely versed in the Soviet diving method, which emphasizes trampoline work and gymnastic drills.

But even if he is allowed to stay, Djavadian cannot compete internationally for five years under international rules.

In the meantime, Djavadian can compete in local, regional, invitational and exhibition meets for Gymnastic Olympica under Coach Dennis Taylor.

But after all Djavadian has been through, he might have the patience to survive a five-year delay.

"I can wait," Djavadian said. "I want to dive in the Olympics because I have been 16 years in this sport and have never competed in the Olympic Games."

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