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Olena Rebenko and Oleg Rebenko v. Eric H. Holder

September 4, 2012



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Lynch, Chief Judge.

Before Lynch, Chief Judge, Boudin and Lipez, Circuit Judges.

On January 4, 2010, an Immigration Judge (IJ) denied petitioner Olena Rebenko's*fn1 application for asylum, withholding of removal, and withholding under the Convention Against Torture (CAT). The Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) affirmed this denial on September 8, 2011. Rebenko timely petitions for review of the BIA's decision. We deny the petition.


Rebenko is a native and citizen of Ukraine who entered the United States on July 1, 2001, on a J-1 non-immigrant visa and then, on September 14, 2004, obtained an F-1 student visa that authorized her to remain in the United States until July 31, 2006. On October 12, 2004, Rebenko filed an affirmative application for asylum and withholding of removal with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).*fn2 Following an interview, an asylum officer issued a notice of intent to deny Rebenko's application on September 11, 2007. DHS initiated removal proceedings against Rebenko on September 27, 2007, charging that she had remained in the United States beyond the date her visa allowed.

Rebenko appeared before an IJ on January 8, 2008, denied that she was removable*fn3 pursuant to 8 U.S.C. § 1227(a)(1)(B), and again applied for asylum, withholding of removal, and protection under the CAT, as well as voluntary departure in the alternative. The IJ conducted a hearing on Rebenko's application on April 20, 2009, at which Rebenko testified. We recount this testimony.

Rebenko was then twenty-six years old and had been of the Pentecostal faith since childhood. She experienced problems while living in Ukraine because of her faith. In May of 1999, she had gathered with her grandmother and "other religious brothers and sisters" for a meeting when the police interrupted the meeting, took the congregants to the police station, and detained them in a cell. One of the guards took her to meet with an investigator, who slapped her and told her that she should not follow in her grandmother's footsteps and that "he wouldn't stand for any Pentecostals living in the city." The investigator threatened her life for "spreading religious disease among his people." Rebenko conceded that it is not illegal to be Pentecostal in Ukraine and that the worshipers secured their release by paying a bribe after being detained for less than eight hours.

After this, Rebenko and her grandmother received about five phone calls at their home from "nationalists" who told them "that they would kill [them] and that they wouldn't be playing easy games just like [the] police did with [them], and that they hated Pentecostals and that Pentecostals would not live." Rebenko "believe[d] that the police informed the nationalists." Her grandmother reported a few of these calls to the police, but the record does not reveal whether anything came of these reports.

On June 23, 2000, at Rebenko's high school graduation, "students called [her] names and basically yelled out that Pentecostals did not deserve to get [an] education." Though the principal tried to calm the students, Rebenko "could tell that [the principal] enjoyed the mockings [sic] because she was also Orthodox Christian."

On the way home from the graduation ceremony "a bunch of skinheads" followed Rebenko; when she attempted to run from them, they caught up to her, knocked her to the ground, and beat her, causing injuries to her face and "the sides of [her] body." One of the attackers put a knife to Rebenko's throat, threatened to rape and kill her, and said "this would not happen to [her], again, if [she] weren't Pentecostal." When passers-by approached, Rebenko's assailants left and Rebenko ran home, crying, to her grandmother, who took her to the police station to file a report; the police then sent Rebenko to the hospital for medical attention. After receiving no word as to the progress of the case, Rebenko and her grandmother inquired with the police, who told them that the case had not yet been resolved. Though Rebenko did not specifically identify her attackers to the police, their identities were well-known within the community, and she "believe[d] the investigator just didn't like [her] because [she] was Pentecostal and didn't do anything to pursue the case."

About a year later, Rebenko left Ukraine for the United States; she testified that she "left Ukraine because [she] was afraid for [her] life" and that she had not since returned. Rebenko acknowledged that since her departure from Ukraine, the Ukrainian authorities had not contacted her in any way. Rebenko asserted, however, that were she to return to Ukraine, would-be persecutors would recognize that she was Pentecostal because she would have to register with the police, she would dress and behave differently than the rest of the population on account of her religion, and everyone within her community knew each other.

Rebenko also presented testimony from Igor Kotler, a professor of history at the University of Phoenix whom she proffered as an expert on religious minorities in Ukraine. The IJ qualified Kotler as an expert due to his authorship of an article on non-Orthodox Christian denominations in Russia. Kotler conceded that he had not been to Ukraine since 2002, that he had not written or published any works regarding Pentecostals in Ukraine, and that his education had not focused on the Pentecostal faith.

Kotler testified that the Pentecostal religion was viewed in Ukraine as having "invaded" the country about 200 years ago and that were Rebenko to return to Ukraine, she would be at grave risk of persecution from nationalists. Kotler added that the Ukrainian government does not protect minorities and agreed with Rebenko that a person returning to Ukraine from the United States might have to register with the local authorities. Kotler admitted that while he had testified as an expert in other immigration proceedings, he had never reached any conclusion other than that an alien would be harmed if returned to his or her country. He suggested that this was because he only agreed to testify in meritorious cases.

The record before the IJ included the U.S. State Department's 2007 and 2008 International Religious Freedom Reports. Both reports stated that "[t]he Constitution and the law on freedom of conscience provide for freedom of religion" and that "the Government generally respected this right in practice" or "religious freedom in practice"; both also suggested that government laws and policies "contribute[d] to the generally free practice of religion." The 2007 report ...

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