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Angoucheva v. Immigration and Naturalization Service

February 11, 1997






Petition for Review of a Final Order of the Board of Immigration Appeals. No. A71-467-871

Before COFFEY, MANION, and ROVNER, Circuit Judges.


ARGUED MAY 13, 1996


Natasha Angoucheva, a Bulgarian woman of Macedonian descent, petitions for review of a final order of deportation that denied her applications for asylum and withholding of deportation. Adopting the findings and conclusions of the Immigration Judge ("IJ"), the Board of Immigration Appeals (the "BIA" or "Board") determined that Angoucheva was ineligible for asylum because she had not established that she had been persecuted prior to leaving Bulgaria or that she had a well-founded fear of future persecution if returned there. In petitioning for review of that decision, Angoucheva argues that the Board did not fully consider her claim, and also that the evidence before the Board was sufficient to establish past persecution and a well-founded fear of future persecution. Because we are not confident that the Board fully considered vital aspects of Angoucheva's claim, we grant the petition for review, vacate the Board's order, and remand for further proceedings.



Angoucheva decided to leave Bulgaria in May 1990 after a State Security officer sexually assaulted her in the course of an interrogation at a State Security office. The interrogation involved Angoucheva's political activities on behalf of the United Macedonia Organization ("UMO-Ilinden"), which was formed in 1990 to promote the rights of Macedonians living in Bulgaria. A month or two after the assault, Angoucheva booked herself on a private tour to the United States. She arrived in this country on July 12, 1990, and applied for asylum shortly thereafter. Angoucheva's original asylum application did not detail the alleged persecution that is the subject of her current claim, yet at the hearing on her second application, Angoucheva offered the following explanation for the discrepancy. She explained that she could not speak English when she arrived in this country, and that she had sought the assistance of a Bulgarian woman she had met at the Immigration Office in completing her application. The woman had agreed to complete the application, but she had been in a hurry and never translated to Angoucheva what she had written. (Apparently, the woman had taken the necessary information from Angoucheva's passport.) Although Angoucheva was later interviewed by an asylum officer, the woman from her church who acted as a translator during that interview did not speak the same dialect as Angoucheva and thus did not provide complete and accurate translations. The INS ultimately denied Angoucheva's asylum application and initiated deportation proceedings.

Angoucheva then secured legal counsel, conceded deportability, and submitted a revised application for asylum, detailing for the first time the alleged persecution to which she had been subjected in Bulgaria. At the hearing on her revised application, the INS offered the earlier application into evidence and suggested that her present assertions were fabricated. Yet the IJ credited Angoucheva's explanation for the discrepancies and found that her current claim was not "completely fabricated." (Administrative Record ("AR") at 57.) The IJ noted that this finding was "not tantamount . . . to concluding that her claim is so inherently persuasive that it is entitled to full evidentiary weight" (id.), but he did not specifically reject any portion of Angoucheva's claim as not credible. Indeed, in discussing Angoucheva's claim of past persecution, the IJ seemed to credit all of her factual assertions. Despite the ambiguity in the IJ's findings, the INS concedes here that the events underlying Angoucheva's claim in fact occurred. (INS Br. at 18 ("No one disputes that [Angoucheva] was sexually assaulted and that as a result she suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.").) We accept that concession in describing the relevant events.


Angoucheva grew up in Petrich, a town in the southwestern or "Pirin" region of Bulgaria that is home to many Macedoians. *fn1 Angoucheva's family was quite vocal in asserting its Macedonian ethnicity, and as a result, various family members encountered difficulties with Bulgaria's Communist regime, which generally attempted to suppress all assertions of a separate Macedonian identity. The first such incident occurred in May 1970, when State Security officers forcibly seized Angoucheva's father from the family home. It seems that her father, a grade school teacher in Petrich, had frequently lectured his students on Macedonian history using the Macedonian language. He also apparently had aided a Macedonian organization to which his brother belonged by typing a leaflet urging Macedonians to fight for their civil rights. When he was returned home approximately six hours later, Angoucheva's father had been severely beaten. State Security officers also had forced him to sign a document promising to cease his pro-Macedonian activities. Angoucheva was subsequently taunted in school by students and teachers alike about her father's political difficulties.

Angoucheva related various other occasions during the 1970s and 1980s when she or members of her family either were arrested, interrogated, or beaten for asserting their Macedonian ancestry. Angoucheva was herself interrogated at the State Security office in Sofia in December 1973 when the authorities suspected (correctly, it turned out) that she and her aunt had hidden Angoucheva's uncle from police pursuing him on account of his pro-Macedonian activities. *fn2 The interrogating officer accused Angoucheva's entire family of regularly engaging in illegal political activities. When Angoucheva told the officer that she was proud to be a Macedonian, he threatened to have her arrested, yelling "There are no Macedonians in Bulgaria!" The officer eventually forced Angoucheva and her aunt to sign a document promising that they would stop calling themselves Macedonians.

Approximately five months later, Angoucheva encountered on a Sofia street two State Security officers who had observed the December 1973 interrogation. When Angoucheva was forced to tell the officers where she lived, one of them remembered her from the interrogation and promptly struck her on the side of the head, blackening her eye. The other officer then struck her hips and kicked her legs. The officers indicated that she would get more of the same if she continued to call herself Macedonian. Angoucheva was understandably reluctant after this incident to identify herself as Macedonian.

Although Angoucheva relies on these earlier incidents to point up the Bulgarian government's general hostility toward citizens of Macedonian descent, her claims for asylum and withholding of deportation focus more specifically on events occurring shortly before her departure from Bulgaria. In November 1989, Communist dictator Todor Zhivkov fell from power, and the new Bulgarian government espoused its interest in ensuring human rights for all Bulgarians. It was in this environment that the UMO-Ilinden was founded in Petrich, and Angoucheva quickly joined the organization in the hope that the new government could be persuaded to recognize Macedonians as a distinct ethnic group whose culture should not be suppressed. Angoucheva soon learned, however, that the general anti-Macedonian sentiment in Bulgaria had not disappeared with the change in government.

On March 11, 1990, Angoucheva participated in a pro-Macedonian rally at a public park in Sofia. The rally's purpose was to protest the government's refusal to recognize the separate ethnic identity and rights of Macedonians. Angoucheva and her fellow protesters were jeered by the gathering crowd and eventually were surrounded by State Security officers. Afterward, Angoucheva hosted a gathering at her Sofia apartment for at least ten others who had come from Petrich to participate in the rally. The group sang Macedonian songs and listened to Macedonian music.

The following month, UMO-Ilinden sponsored a rally at Rozen Monastery in Sandanski to commemorate the anniversary of the death of Yane Sandanski, a Macedonian hero who had led an unsuccessful uprising against the Turks in the early 1900s. When it got wind of the rally, the Bulgarian government suspended public transportation into Sandanski and sent State Security officers to prevent those already there from assembling. Although the UMO-Ilinden's chairman was warned that the rally was illegal, it proceeded as planned. The following day, Sofia's state-owned newspaper denounced the rally as anti-Bulgarian and reiterated that such gatherings were illegal.

In the meantime, a neighbor had reported Angoucheva to State Security for the "questionable" gathering at her home after the March 11 rally. She was ordered to appear at Sofia's State Security office at 5:00 p.m. on April 27.

Angoucheva went to the State Security office on April 27 as instructed and encountered Major Michael Beltchev, a uniformed officer who first examined her passport. Beltchev then left Angoucheva alone in his office for approximately twenty minutes before returning with two officers who merely looked at Angoucheva for a moment before leaving. Beltchev began to question Angoucheva about the March 11 gathering, and he indicated that gatherings with a political orientation were not permitted in private homes. He explained that Macedonians do not exist in Bulgaria, that organizations like the ...

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