Medical examiner calls immigrant detainee's death a suicide

SEATTLE -- A Russian asylum seeker who conducted a hunger strike to protest the conditions at an immigration jail in Tacoma died by suicide, the Pierce County Medical Examiner's Office ruled Monday.

Mergensana Amar, 40, died by hanging, the office said.

Amar was taken off life support at St. Joseph's Medical Center on Saturday after attempting to kill himself while in voluntary protective custody at the privately run Northwest Detention Center on Nov. 15, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said in a written statement. He had been held there since December, soon after arriving in the U.S. without permission to be in the country.

Activists who monitor the detention center said Amar began a hunger strike in early August to protest its conditions as well as his pending deportation to Russia, but in early September a federal judge in Tacoma granted the government's request to provide him with involuntary medical treatment — hydration, the activists said.

According to ICE, Amar, who was due to be deported this month, began consuming fresh fruit, electrolytes and meal replacement shakes Sept. 19.

He was consuming enough calories by Oct. 16 to be taken off "hunger strike status," but he threatened to stop eating once again if officials publicized that information, so ICE kept it quiet, the agency said.

"Despite his previous participation in a hunger strike, Amar remained in good physical health prior to this incident and was monitored daily by ICE Health Service Corps medical professionals," the statement said. "ICE has not previously released the timeline of his hunger strike status due to Amar's repeated threats to resume the hunger strike should its end be made public."

Maru Mora Villalpando, an organizer with Northwest Detention Center Resistance, called the agency's statement "a bunch of lies" and insisted that he had been retaliated against, including by threats of force-feeding.

"It's ridiculous that they are trying to minimize his resistance," she said. "They are responsible for his death. They are responsible for everything that goes on in there."

Some confusion remained over the detainee's name. Villalpando said his first name was Amar and last name Mergensana, which is also how he identified himself when interviewed, through an interpreter, by the local news website Crosscut.

The Pierce County Medical Examiner's Office initially identified him that way, but changed it Monday after being contacted by ICE, which has consistently identified him as Mergensana Amar based on his passport.

Villalpando said Amar spoke of being afraid to return to Russia, though she said he offered few details about why. He told Crosscut he was from Buryatia, a Russian republic just north of Mongolia, and that he had been imprisoned for demonstrating in support of the republic's independence.

Activist planned to hold a vigil for him outside the detention center Monday night.

The jail is owned and operated by the GEO Group.