A federal immigration judge in Baltimore barred the public yesterday from a court hearing for a Peruvian immigrant accused by his home country of participating in a military-led massacre in the mid-1980s.
Judge Elizabeth A. Kessler ordered the removal proceedings into secret session at the request of an attorney for Juan Manuel Rivera-Rondon, who lived in Montgomery County until his arrest late last month.
The lawyer, Mary Ann L. Berlin, told Kessler that Rivera-Rondon had previously applied for asylum but withdrew that request. Still, Berlin argued that there were unnamed "security" concerns about his case receiving a public airing. No written motion was filed on the issue.
The detention received significant publicity last week after the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced Rivera-Rondon's arrest, calling the extradition of accused war criminals a top priority and asking for the public's help to catch other suspects. But Christopher Cox, a department attorney, told Kessler he had no objection to closing the hearing from public view.
By law, immigration court proceedings are open to the public except when a judge cites one of several limited reasons for closing. Kessler, who was appointed to the court last year, said she was "erring on the side of caution" by removing members of the public from her courtroom to protect unidentified witnesses in the case. She allowed Rivera-Rondon's brother and sister to remain.
It was also unclear how many other people were able to hear the proceedings despite the judge's order. Rivera-Rondon appeared in court via a videolink from a prison facility in Dorchester on the Eastern Shore. There were other detainees waiting for their court appearances there, and it was not immediately known whether they were allowed to listen in to Rivera-Rondon's hearing.
The next hearing on the case is scheduled for April 26, according to Susan Eastwood of the federal Department of Justice's Executive Office for Immigration Review. Rivera-Rondon, 47, was one of three former South American military officers arrested by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents who now face extradition. All are suspected of committing crimes against humanity in their home countries.
Rivera-Rondon is accused of taking part in the 1985 massacre of 69 villagers during a military raid in an area known as a stronghold of the Shining Path guerrilla group. Peruvian officials requested his extradition in March 2006.
But he has not been charged with that crime in the United States. Instead, court documents show that Rivera-Rondon was picked up on immigration violations March 23 for failing to report that he had been convicted of a crime involving the maltreatment of a young relative.
Much about Rivera-Rondon's suspected role in the killings remained unavailable to the public.
Officials at the Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security declined to provide the extradition papers filed by the Peruvian government. The immigration court file was given to and then taken away from a Sun reporter last week after a court administrator insisted the documents were private.
In addition, Kessler's ruling yesterday made it almost impossible to learn details of Rivera-Rondon's fate.