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05.02.2004 Crime & Punishment

Ghanaian suspected of committing crimes against humanity arrested in USA

By Atlanta Journal-Constitution
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Church, boss back Ghanian accused of rights violations Atrocity charges met with disbelief Supervisors at Decatur's Best Taxi Service know Francis Mensah as a mild-mannered cabbie who gets along well with the customers. Elders at his Mableton church describe a devout member with integrity. Even his ex-wife says good things about him.

So they all were surprised when federal agents arrested Mensah on Jan. 22 and announced he was "suspected of committing crimes against humanity" in his native Ghana, a West African nation of 21 million people.

The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency detained Mensah, 46, of Lithonia, as part of a national initiative targeting war criminals and other human rights violators, said Michael Higgins, associate special-agent-in-charge of the agency's Atlanta office.

"The message we want to send is that if you commit these kinds of atrocities in other countries, you're not welcome in the United States," he said.

Agents charged Mensah with lying on an application for permanent residency when he answered "no" to a question asking whether he had ever persecuted others, Higgins said.

Higgins said Mensah had admitted, when he applied for asylum in Canada in 1991, to committing crimes against humanity in Ghana --- but that he recanted to investigators in Atlanta last week. After Canadian authorities turned down his asylum request --- for reasons not clear Friday --- Mensah entered the United States illegally and applied for asylum in 1993, Higgins said. Mensah settled in metro Atlanta and became a legal, permanent resident after marrying a U.S. citizen.

Victor Cerda, principal legal adviser to the immigration enforcement agency, declined to detail the government's allegations against Mensah. He said authorities will present evidence to an immigration judge showing that Mensah committed atrocities before coming to the United States, likely in the 1980s or early 1990s. He said the agency will try to deport Mensah to Ghana. Immigration authorities and elders at Mensah's church said they do not think Mensah has a lawyer. A spokeswoman for the immigration service said agents transported Mensah to a jail in St. Joseph, La. The sheriff who runs that jail did not return calls requesting an interview with Mensah. Wife disputes claims His wife, Ghana native Gladys Mensah, said her husband is a good man who listens to church music in the car and sometimes buys groceries for new arrivals from Ghana. In halting English, she said she does not know what she will do if the government deports her husband because she does not drive and has relied on him for rides and to buy food and clothes for her and her 4-year-old daughter, Pricilla.

"He did everything for me and my baby," she said on Friday afternoon. When agents showed up at her house last week, Gladys Mensah said she asked them why they were taking her husband. An agent "told me Francis has a problem in Ghana" but did not elaborate.

Her husband called her collect from a jail on Friday morning but she was afraid to ask why he was in custody, worried that authorities were recording their conversation.

She does not believe the government's allegations. Her husband ran a grocery store in Ghana --- where she knew him as someone with no involvement with the military or politics, she said.

"I don't know what's going on," she said.

The allegations also come as a shock in the offices of Decatur's Best Taxi Service, a family-owned cab company where Mensah was known to dispatchers as "Francis 738." He had a squeaky clean image in a rough-and-tumble business, compiling five complaints during six years in an industry where some drivers rack up two or three complaints a month, said Tom McCurley, a company vice president.

On Tuesday, McCurley wrote a letter to immigration authorities on Mensah's behalf.

"He has always been courteous and good with our customers," the letter says. "Consider this a good character reference for Mr. Mensah." McCurley's parents, Carl and Linda McCurley, who own the taxi company, also were surprised to learn of the government's allegations. "It's kind of hard for me to believe that," said Linda McCurley. "Since he's been with us, he's been as good as they come," Carl McCurley said. 'Are they sure?'

Compared with other West African nations, such as Liberia and Sierra Leone, Ghana is a relatively stable country with an emerging democratic government. Last year, however, a National Reconciliation Commission began looking into allegations of torture, killings and other human rights violations that occurred during past military regimes, including one that ruled the country from 1982 to 1992.

Mensah's former wife, Karen Jones, said he told her that he grew up in poverty and worked as a stonemason. She said he never mentioned any affiliation with the government or military in Ghana, which he left in the early 1990s. She said he didn't even talk about politics with Ghanian friends while the couple lived in Morrow from 1995 to 2000.

"Are they sure they have the right person?" asked Jones. "He never came across to me as being a political person."

Neither Isaac Aggrey, the Ghanian ambassador to the United States, nor his embassy's spokesman in Washington returned several phone calls left over three days.

Cerda, the immigration agency's legal adviser in Washington, said agents detained Mensah as part of a "No Safe Haven" initiative that targets human rights violators.

Since the effort began last June, he said, agents have arrested several dozen people, including a Somali in Minnesota and a Haitian in Miami, both accused of genocide, and a Cuban and Nicaraguan in Miami who are accused of turning over student protesters to secret police in their native countries. One goal is to deter those who persecuted others from receiving asylum or refugee status, which is intended for victims of persecution.

"They're trying to manipulate the law and seek shelter here," he said. Elders at Mensah's Atlanta Ghanian Seventh-Day Adventist Church in Mableton said they find it hard to believe that Mensah is the man the government describes. They said they hope that the truth about Mensah's past is not as the immigration authorities portray it.

"Francis has immensely contributed to the growth and success of the church and our community in various ways," they said in a statement. "We know him to be a good person."

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