74-year-old immigrant commits suicide in California

A 74-year-old immigrant who had pleaded to be released from a detention facility in California for fear of contracting COVID-19 died by suicide at the weekend, officials said on Monday.

Choung Won Ahn, who suffered from diabetes, hypertension and heart ailments, was found dead late Sunday at the Mesa Verde Detention Facility located in Bakersfield, some two hours north of Los Angeles.

He had been detained there by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) since February 21.

In March, a group of attorneys had made a plea for Ahn and others with serious health conditions to be released because of the probability they could get infected with the novel coronavirus while in detention.

“The risk of contracting COVID-19 in congregate settings is very high,” Jordan Wells, staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Foundation of Southern California, wrote in a letter to ICE. “Despite an overwhelming consensus of public health experts… you have failed to release people like a 74-year-old man with chronic respiratory problems.”

The ACLU said Ahn’s appeal was rejected.

“We are processing, and we are very emotionally upset,” said Ahn’s brother, Young Ahn, in a statement. “We are angry. He did not deserve to be treated this way. He’s a human being, but to them, he’s just a number. There are other people in the same situation. It shouldn’t be happening again.”

ICE did not immediately reply to an AFP request for details about the case.

But in a statement to local media, it said that Ahn was found dead in his cell at 9:52 pm local time on Sunday.

“ICE appreciates consideration while details are confirmed and next of kin and other notifications are made,” the agency said. “Additional information will be provided as it is available.”

In recent weeks, a number of detainees with serious health problems have been released from ICE detention facilities in response to a lawsuit filed by rights groups and the public defender’s office in San Francisco.

“We are deeply saddened by Mr. Ahn’s death,” said Manohar Raju, the San Francisco public defender. “Mr. Ahn was particularly medically vulnerable and should have been released by ICE to his family, particularly given the grave risks of COVID in ICE detention centres.”

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