A Passport to Get Out of Prison

Umaru Balde Pinto, 18, finds it very hard to study right now. The young man from Guinea-Bissau, who as a child was treated as a slave and who has shown unusual scholastic talents, has been trying over the past few months to register for university studies in various countries. However, the Interior Ministry recently decided to send him back to jail, where he was put right after coming to Israel about two years ago.

If Pinto is taken into custody again, he will not be held in a facility for youth offenders, but rather at Maasiyahu Prison. If he does go back to jail, it is not clear when or how he will get out, since he has no passport, and cannot be deported without one. The Tel Aviv Administrative Court is to hear a request today by Moked, the Hotline for Migrant Workers, to prohibit Pinto's reincarceration.

When Pinto was 7, his parents gave him to a sheikh who lived in a distant village who promised them he would teach the boy the Koran. But Pinto and other children who lived with the sheikh were made to work mainly in farm labor or beg. Pinto was a shepherd. From time to time the children would be sent to another location in a group. "We put up roofs, packed peanuts and dragged firewood long distances," Pinto wrote.

The children were punished in many ways. "We had to undress and stay outside in the cold in our underwear only and we were often beaten with sticks all over our bodies. I was beaten many times," he wrote. At one time, when instead of going to work he went to a memorial service for his grandfather, he was beaten for half an hour and then was forced to serve the sheikh for two hours until he fainted. A short time later Pinto ran away back to his parents' home, and was able to go to school for the first time. Later he joined political groups that were persecuted by the government. In 2002 he fled to Egypt and three years later, to Israel. He was arrested a month after coming into the country.

Pinto's story was publicized widely by Haaretz journalist Nurit Wurgaft in her book "Police! Open Up! Migrant Workers in Israel." A year ago, Wurgaft took Pinto into her home so he could get out of jail, and he has since been like a member of the family.

In the past few months, with the end of his period of freedom approaching, Moked asked the Population Administration a number of times for an extension on his residency permit. The director of the Administration's foreign workers' division, Yossi Edelstein, rejected the request. The head of the Custody Tribunal, attorney Dan Libreti, then recommended that the case be transfered to the Administrative Court.

Moked attorney Yonatan Berman wrote the court that the only reason for incarcerating Pinto again would be to ensure his deportation. But since he has no passport, he cannot be deported, and therefore putting him behind bars cannot be justified. "It appears that according to the state, the petitioner has a 'secret means' of obtaining travel documents or disappearing into thin air and ridding the state of his presence," Berman wrote.

Pinto wants very much to obtain a passport. He has corresponded with universities from all over the world, telling his story and trying to get accepted. But without a passport he cannot sit for examinations, and there is no way to get one from Guinea-Bissau, which does not have diplomatic relations with Israel and does not have a Web site. Pinto twice sent $100 to relatives in Guinea-Bissau to get a passport for him and in both cases, they cut off contact with him after receiving the money.

Berman wrote the court that "to the best of our knowledge the authorities in Israel have not managed to issue a passport for a citizen of Guinea-Bissau to allow for his deportation."

"This a feeling of having one's back to the wall," Wurgaft said of Pinto's situation. "He has no way of obtaining a passport, but the state says 'we don't care. Go back to jail.'"

A spokeswoman for the Population Administration said, "Pinto was released on condition that during his release the matter of his departure from Israel would be arranged. Despite his release, in over 10 months he has not proved that actions have been taken to arrange his departure." The Administration also noted that "we have never had problems issuing travel documents for citizens of Guinea-Bissau."