Case of a Bartered Bride

James J. Kilpatrick
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Posted: Mar 27, 2007 11:03 AM

When this Case of a Bartered Bride began in November 2001, Hong Yin Gao was only 19 years old. That was when her family sold her to Chen Zhi for the Chinese equivalent of $2,200. Now her case is in the U.S. Supreme Court because Attorney General Alberto Gonzales wants to send her back to China.

Will the high court hear his cold-hearted appeal? Doesn't the A.G. have enough on his hands right now? Tension mounts.

In this real-life melodrama, Gao is cast as the beautiful Belinda. Chen Zhi is the evil Rassendale. The curtain rises on a courtroom in Manhattan.

First, a synopsis: In order to pay off some serious bills, Gao's parents make a deal: Through an agent, they agree to sell their daughter to Zhi for delivery when the lass turns 21. (Evidently this is an old Chinese custom, regularly observed in rural villages of Fujian Province.) The dowry is to be paid up front and in full.

It appears from the record that Zhi was taken in. (Being a sucker is an old worldwide custom.) He pays the $2,200 to Gao's mama. That is the last he sees of it. She pays some bills. Time passes. We learn from the attorney general's petition that Belinda-Gao at first considers Rassendale-Zhi to be a "rather acceptable potential husband."

Drop the comic book metaphor. These are real people in real-world trouble. From Gonzales' brief:

"She changed her mind, however, when she determined that he had a 'bad temperament' and gambled. According to her testimony, the relationship soured. He slapped her and refused to cancel the engagement.

"At that point, Gao decided not to marry Zhi and moved to the city of Mawei, about an hour away by boat from her home. After her departure, Zhi occasionally harassed her family, looking to have either his money returned or the marriage contract fulfilled. On one occasion, Zhi smashed something in the home of Gao's family. Zhi also threatened that, if she refused to marry him, his uncle, a powerful local official, would arrest her."

Tensions continued to mount. At last, Gao's mother paid a smuggler to arrange her voyage to the United States. She had heard that Gao could apply for political asylum in New York. Back home in China, as U.S. Circuit Judge Chester Straub would later recount, "Zhi and his cohorts continued to harass her family, to the point where the family has had to move repeatedly."

On Nov. 1, 2001, Gao arrived illegally in the United States. She promptly applied for permanent residence as a refugee. For more than a year she benefited from asylum in the Chinese community of New York. Early in January 2003 an immigration judge ruled against her petition to remain. Asylum may be granted because of a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, or circumstances under which a reasonable person would fear persecution. She could prove none of these things. Neither could she prove that she would be tortured if she were sent back to China. The judge ordered her deportation.

It was the prospect of brutal punishment that impressed Judge Straub in the 2nd Circuit. He reasoned that Gao enjoys the protection of what is known as the CAT, i.e., the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. The judge found it plausible that under the convention, forced marriage would qualify as a form of degrading treatment.

The court thus held that international law protects this damsel in distress. "Gao belongs to a particular social group that shares more than a common gender: Gao's social group consists of women who have been sold into marriage (whether or not that marriage has yet taken place) and who live in a part of China where forced marriages are considered valid and enforceable."

Judge Straub hedged his opinion in a footnote: It was tailored to the facts in this particular case. He was not implying that all the young unmarried women in rural China are eligible for asylum if they are threatened with forced marriage.

Will the bluebird of happiness light upon the fair shoulders of Hong Yin Gao? Hard to say. Attorney General Gonzales predicts dire consequences if Judge Straub's opinion is permitted to stand. It "defies the most basic rules for judicial review of agency action"! He cites supportive cases from South Africa and Guatemala. Sixty percent of all marriages worldwide are "arranged." Will Zhi's venal desires be thwarted? Will Gao be saved from a fate worse than death? Stay tuned.