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Tobarak Ulla Tofu v. Matthew G. Whitaker
Case Number: 17-1838
Court: United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit on appeal from the Board of Immigration Appeals
Plaintiff's Attorney: Vron John Kapoor
Defendant's Attorney: Victoria Marie Braga
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Tobarak Tofu (“Tofu”), a citizen of Bangladesh, has filed for asylum, withholding
of removal, and protection pursuant to U.S. obligations under the United Nations
Convention against Torture (“CAT”). Tofu alleges that he was persecuted in Bangladesh
due to his political opinion and that he has a well-founded fear of future persecution on that
The immigration judge (“IJ”) determined that Tofu was not credible due to five
major discrepancies in his testimony, and the Board of Immigration Appeals (“BIA”)
affirmed on the same grounds. Because we find that three of these inconsistencies are valid
reasons to doubt Tofu’s credibility, we affirm the BIA’s order and deny Tofu’s petitions
for asylum and withholding of removal.
We further find no merit in Tofu’s argument that the IJ improperly took additional
testimony on remand from the BIA. Finally, we conclude that the BIA’s denial of CAT
protection was supported by substantial evidence.
Tofu asserts that he has been involved with the Bangladesh Nationalist Party
(“BNP”) since 1987, acting as a local political organizer and recruiting villagers to attend
rallies. J.A. 439–41.1 Tofu may also have been a member of the local “ward committee”
of the BNP in his village. J.A. 101–02. Tofu testified before the IJ that he went door to
door in the village publicizing BNP rallies. J.A. 440–42. The rallies were attended by
approximately 2,500 to 3,000 people, and Tofu’s role at the rallies was to maintain order
and lead attendees in shouting slogans. J.A. 130.
Tofu alleges that he was twice the victim of violence perpetrated by members of the
opposition political party, the Bangladesh Awami League (“Awami League”). On
November 25, 1996, Tofu was attacked at a market by a group of ten to fifteen men
wielding machetes and hockey sticks and was cut with a machete on his left arm. J.A. 431–
32. Tofu testified that he recognized his attackers as local Awami League members. J.A.
433. The Awami League controlled Bangladesh at the time of the 1996 attack and remained
in power until the BNP won the 2002 election. J.A. 122.
On March 15, 2009, shortly after the Awami League regained control over the
Bangladeshi government from the BNP, ten to fifteen people associated with the Awami
League attacked Tofu’s tea store. J.A. 445. The attackers cursed Tofu, forced him to flee,
and ransacked his store. J.A. 445–51; but see J.A. 103 (where Tofu stated that the attackers
“bombed out” the store). According to Tofu, several of the individuals who attacked his
store in 2009 also participated in the 1996 attack. J.A. 448.
1 Citations herein to “J.A. ____” refer to the Joint Appendix filed by the parties in
Tofu stated in his credible fear interview that he reported the 1996 attack to police,
who did not accept the case due to Awami League influence. J.A. 773. This statement is
consistent with Tofu’s oral testimony before the IJ regarding the 1996 attack. J.A. 444. In
his credible fear interview, Tofu also stated that he did not personally report the 2009 attack
because he feared retaliation. J.A. 774. However, Tofu asserted that he told his local
Member of Parliament about the attack and that this individual filed a police report. J.A.
775. In his oral testimony before the IJ, Tofu stated only that “we went to the police station
to file an incident, they did not accept our case”; Tofu did not specify whether this
statement related to the 1996 or 2009 attack. J.A. 459.
In March 2009, following the attack on his store, Tofu left his native village in
Bangladesh. J.A. 450–55. He stayed in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, for several weeks
before briefly returning to his village. Id. After traveling to India for a period of time,2 Tofu
returned to Bangladesh and applied for a passport and visa to the United Arab Emirates.
J.A. 474–76. Tofu traveled to Dubai in October 2009 and then made his way to Guatemala
and Mexico before crossing into the U.S. at Hidalgo, Texas, on June 13, 2010. J.A. 489–
2 Tofu stated in his credible fear interview that he spent one month in Calcutta, India,
around May 2009 and attempted to obtain a visa to remain in India. J.A. 775. However,
Tofu testified before the IJ that he traveled to Gujarat, India (on the opposite side of the
country from Calcutta), for ten to twelve days in June 2009. J.A. 483-86. Tofu further
testified that he had either mistakenly referred to Calcutta in the credible fear interview or
that his answer was recorded incorrectly. J.A. 485-86.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents apprehended Tofu and initiated
removal proceedings. J.A. 594–95. An asylum officer conducted a credible fear interview
of Tofu on June 28, 2010, and found that Tofu had a credible fear of persecution. J.A. 769–
71. On June 8, 2011, Tofu submitted his asylum application. J.A. 576.
Tofu’s wife, two children and other relatives remain in Bangladesh. J.A. 425–26.
Tofu testified before the IJ that Awami League members came to his home on multiple
occasions in 2012 looking for him, threatened to kill him, and “attacked [his] house.” J.A.
456. He also testified that Awami League members have threatened his wife and children
since Tofu left the country. J.A. 134–37, 635.
Tofu testified before the IJ and submitted documentary evidence in support of his
asylum application. J.A. 391 et seq. On February 23, 2013, the IJ issued an oral decision
deeming Tofu not credible and denying his petition for asylum. J.A. 371. On December 12,
2014, the BIA issued a two-page decision remanding the claim to immigration court. J.A.
297–98. The BIA observed that the IJ gave improper weight to Tofu’s demeanor and
“failed to consider the respondent’s corroborating documents” and remanded the matter
with directions to “determine anew the respondent’s eligibility for relief.” Id.
On remand, the IJ took additional oral testimony from Tofu and further examined
Tofu’s documentary evidence. J.A. 91 et seq. On October 18, 2016, the IJ issued a detailed
ruling that again found Tofu’s testimony about past persecution not credible and deemed
Tofu’s corroborating evidence insufficient to rehabilitate his testimony or establish a wellfounded
fear of future persecution. J.A. 40–54. On June 19, 2017, the BIA affirmed this
decision and offered additional analysis of the IJ’s findings. J.A. 3–6. Tofu now appeals
from the final BIA order.
The Immigration and Nationality Act gives the Attorney General discretionary
power “to grant asylum to aliens who qualify as ‘refugees.’” Dankam v. Gonzales, 495
F.3d 113, 115 (4th Cir. 2007) (citing 8 U.S.C. §§ 1101(a)(42)(A), 1158(b)(1)(A); INS v.
Ventura, 537 U.S. 12, 13 (2002) (per curiam)). To qualify for asylum, applicants have the
burden of establishing they are unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin
because of either past persecution or well-founded fear of future persecution “on account
of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political
opinion . . . .” 8 U.S.C. § 1101(a)(42)(A).
An asylum applicant can establish eligibility by providing credible testimony about
his or her experiences. Ilunga v. Holder, 777 F.3d 199, 206 (4th Cir. 2015) (citing 8 C.F.R.
§ 208.13(a)). The IJ must evaluate both the applicant’s oral testimony as well as any
corroborating evidence, and must give “specific cogent reasons for why it finds the
testimony” and the documents not credible. Kourouma v. Holder, 588 F.3d 234, 241 (4th
Cir. 2009). The REAL ID Act of 2005 requires IJs to determine credibility based on the
totality of the circumstances and expressly directs the IJ to consider matters such as the
applicant’s demeanor, consistency between statements, internal consistency of testimony,
and the plausibility of the applicant’s account. 8 U.S.C. § 1158(b)(1)(B)(iii). The REAL
ID Act further states that any inconsistency need not go “to the heart of the applicant’s
claim” in order to be probative of credibility. Id.; see also Djadjou v. Holder, 662 F.3d 265,
274 n.1 (4th Cir. 2011) (describing the impact of the REAL ID Act on credibility
Persecution “involves the infliction or threat of death, torture, or injury to one’s
person or freedom, on account of one of the enumerated grounds in the refugee definition.”
Li v. Gonzales, 405 F.3d 171, 177 (4th Cir. 2005) (internal quotation marks omitted)
(quoting Kondakova v. Ashcroft, 383 F.3d 792, 797 (8th Cir. 2004)). To qualify for asylum
based on past persecution, the applicant must show that he was persecuted in his home
country on account of membership in a protected group and is “unable or unwilling to
return to, or avail himself . . . of the protection of, that country owing to such persecution.”
8 C.F.R. § 208.13(b)(1). In order to prove a fear of future persecution, the applicant must
show both a subjective element—“genuine fear of persecution”—and an objective
element—“that a reasonable person in like circumstances would fear persecution.”
Marynenka v. Holder, 592 F.3d 594, 600 (4th Cir. 2010) (quoting Chen v. INS, 195 F.3d
198, 201 (4th Cir. 1999)).
To qualify for the separate remedy of withholding of removal under 8 U.S.C.
§ 1231(b)(3)(A), applicants must meet a higher burden. An alien seeking withholding of
removal must show a “clear probability” that his or her life or freedom would be threatened
in the country of origin. Marynenka, 592 F.3d at 600. Because withholding of removal
imposes a higher burden on the applicant than asylum, an applicant who is denied asylum
will automatically be ineligible for withholding of removal. See Camara v. Ashcroft, 378
F.3d 361, 367 (4th Cir. 2004) (“[A]n applicant who is ineligible for asylum is necessarily
ineligible for withholding of removal . . . .”).
An alien may also seek protection pursuant to U.S. obligations under the CAT. In
order to qualify for CAT protection, the applicant must “establish that it is more likely than
not that he or she would be tortured if removed to the proposed country of removal.”
8 C.F.R. § 208.16(c)(2). However, the probability of torture “need not be tied to a protected
ground.” Marynenka, 592 F.3d at 600. “For purposes of the CAT, torture includes only
conduct ‘by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official
or other person acting in an official capacity.’” Lizama v. Holder, 629 F.3d 440, 449 (4th
Cir. 2011) (quoting 8 C.F.R. § 1208.18(a)(1)).
When the BIA issues a final order affirming and adopting the IJ’s decision, as it did
here, we review both rulings. Tang v. Lynch, 840 F.3d 176, 179 (4th Cir. 2016). The final
removal order is “conclusive unless manifestly contrary to the law and an abuse of
discretion.” 8 U.S.C. § 1252(b)(4)(D). The BIA abuses its discretion only when it “fail[s]
to offer a reasoned explanation for its decision, or if it distorted or disregarded important
aspects of the applicant’s claim.” Tassi v. Holder, 660 F.3d 710, 719 (4th Cir. 2011).
We review factual findings, including findings about the credibility of oral
testimony and the proper weight to accord documentary evidence, to ensure they are
supported by substantial evidence, and we uphold factual findings “unless any reasonable
adjudicator would be compelled to conclude to the contrary.” 8 U.S.C. § 1252(b)(4)(B);
see also Ilunga, 777 F.3d at 206; Lin v. Holder, 736 F.3d 343, 351 (4th Cir. 2013) (“This
standard is very deferential, and does not permit a re-weighing of the evidence.”). We
review denial of CAT protection under the same substantial evidence standard. Lizama,
629 F.3d at 449.
We review any legal issues de novo. Djadjou, 662 F.3d at 273.
Tofu argues that the IJ improperly relied on minor inconsistencies in his testimony
and discrepancies between testimony and corroborating evidence to find him not credible
regarding his past persecution and fear of future persecution in Bangladesh. Specifically,
Tofu takes issue with the following five inconsistencies identified by the IJ:
First, the IJ found that Tofu gave conflicting accounts of where he hid after fleeing
from his attackers in March 2009. Tofu told the asylum officer who conducted his credible
fear interview that he fled to and then stayed at a neighboring house. J.A. 773–74. Tofu
later testified before the IJ that he ran into a garden and hid there until his attackers left.
Second, Tofu testified that he received a deep cut on his left arm during the 1996
attack, which was treated by a village doctor. J.A. 434. Tofu also produced a letter
purportedly written by the village doctor describing the wound and treatment. J.A. 160.
However, this letter is dated May 20, 2009 and states that treatment was rendered on
May 20, 2009. Id.
Third, the IJ found that Tofu’s ability to travel unhindered after the 2009 attack and
the fact that Tofu obtained an official passport and left Bangladesh legally cast doubt on
Tofu’s credibility. J.A. 47. Specifically, the IJ found that Tofu’s travel history did not
support his professed fear of future persecution by the Awami League. Id.
Fourth, the IJ determined that Tofu lacked familiarity with BNP political ideology
and gave vague testimony about his involvement with the party. The IJ found that these
weaknesses undermined Tofu’s credibility, because they suggested that he was not as
involved with the party as he claimed to be and would not be targeted in Bangladesh for
his political activities. J.A. 46–47.
Fifth, the IJ found Tofu’s testimony insufficient to establish that the Bangladeshi
government was unable or unwilling to protect him from Awami League violence. J.A. 47.
Tofu testified that the police were contacted after each attack, J.A. 444, 459, but Tofu did
not provide documentary evidence proving that either he himself or other BNP members
attempted to file reports.
We find that three of the reasons cited by the IJ sufficiently support the adverse
credibility finding. We find that the other two reasons are suspect, as explained below.
Under the substantial evidence standard, we affirm the finding that Tofu was not credible.
Tofu’s conflicting testimony about where he hid following the March 2009 attack
cannot be explained by mere translation difficulties as Tofu’s counsel urged at oral
argument before this court. Tofu’s oral testimony was the only firsthand account of the
2009 attack before the IJ. Cf. J.A. 556–57 (testimony from Mr. Mohammad Eusuf, who
heard that Tofu had been chased out of his store but did not personally witness the attack).
Thus, it was appropriate for the IJ to use this discrepancy to determine credibility.
The inconsistency between Tofu’s testimony about his 1996 injuries and the
doctor’s May 2009 letter is similarly material to Tofu’s credibility. Because Tofu alleges
only a single instance of physical harm, this issue is significant in the assessment of Tofu’s
credibility. While it is possible that the doctor simply dated the letter incorrectly, Tofu and
his counsel were capable of reviewing and confirming the details in the first instance and
seeking additional evidence as necessary. We further find it doubtful that the doctor
accurately remembered details of an injury he treated over twelve years ago, and the letter
makes no reference to records that may have refreshed the doctor’s memory.
We find that Tofu’s decision to travel to India and then return to Bangladesh was
also material to his credibility. Tofu’s return to Bangladesh from India prior to obtaining
his Dubai visa is a key fact suggesting that Tofu did not have a well-founded fear of
persecution at the hands of the Awami League. See Ngarurih v. Ashcroft, 371 F.3d 182,
189 (4th Cir. 2004) (upholding BIA’s conclusion that petitioner’s voluntary return to his
native country rebutted a presumption of well-founded fear of future persecution). Further,
while there is no evidence that the Bangladeshi government was aware of Tofu’s travels
between India and Bangladesh, soon after returning to Bangladesh, Tofu availed himself
of a government service by requesting and obtaining approval to leave the country. We
note, however, that this fact alone does not necessarily undermine Tofu’s credibility. To
the contrary, a foreign government may be more than willing to allow troublesome political
activists to leave the country. If these activists are able to prove the elements required for
asylum, the fact that the government acquiesced in their departure is not necessarily
probative of the credible fear element of an asylum claim. See Bah v. Ashcroft, 107 F.
App’x 810, 811 (9th Cir. 2004) (concluding that the IJ’s finding that applicant would not
“have been allowed to leave the country without difficulty if he was as politically active as
he claimed” was conjecture and “not a proper basis for a negative credibility finding”). But
“it is not our task to reweigh the evidence and determine which of the competing views is
more compelling.” Ngarurih, 371 F.3d at 189 (internal quotation marks omitted).
Substantial evidence supports the IJ’s finding that Tofu’s willingness to return to
Bangladesh was a key fact that undermined his credibility.
Two discrepancies cited by the IJ are not legitimate reasons to doubt Tofu’s
credibility. First, the IJ should not have relied on Tofu’s apparent lack of knowledge about
BNP political ideology in finding Tofu not credible. Tofu is not required to articulate an
intimate knowledge of political doctrine in order to prove a credible fear of persecution;
rather, he is only required to show persecution “on account of . . . political opinion.”
8 U.S.C. § 1101(a)(42). Further, Tofu’s low level of education provides a reasonable
explanation for his inability to articulate the BNP’s ideology. Tofu testified that he
organized rallies, and other witnesses stated that Tofu was known in the area as a political
activist. Tofu did not have to demonstrate familiarity with BNP political doctrine to make
out an asylum claim.
Second, we are not convinced by the IJ’s reasoning that, because Tofu was unable
to produce a police report, he failed to show that Bangladeshi authorities were unwilling
protect him. Tofu cannot be expected to provide a document that he did not receive,
apparently through no fault of his own, or to prove a negative. Therefore, the IJ should not
have relied on the lack of a police report to find Tofu’s testimony on the issue not credible.3
We find that three of the IJ’s reasons for finding Tofu not credible—(1) the internal
contradiction in Tofu’s testimony about the aftermath of the 2009 attack, (2) the
discrepancy between Tofu’s oral testimony and the doctor’s letter with regard to his 1996
injuries, and (3) his return to Bangladesh—are each a legitimate reason to question Tofu’s
credibility. We further find that these three reasons, viewed together, support an adverse
credibility finding under this court’s precedent. See Camara, 378 F.3d at 368–69 (affirming
denial of asylum petition under the substantial evidence standard where only two of six
discrepancies actually supported the IJ’s credibility finding).4
When an asylum applicant’s oral testimony is not credible, the IJ must still examine
any corroborating documentary evidence to determine whether it rehabilitates the
3 We do observe, however, that Tofu’s statements and evidence lack specificity on
this point because they fail to demonstrate both how Tofu’s local Member of Parliament
actually attempted to report the 2009 attack and how Tofu learned from this individual that
the police were unwilling to help. As these issues were not raised by the IJ, BIA, or either
party on appeal, we will not examine them in detail here. We simply note that a finding by
this court one way or the other would not impact our decision.
4 Although Camara was decided prior to the passage of the REAL ID Act of 2005,
this does not change our analysis because the REAL ID Act broadened the scope of
potential inconsistencies that might properly support an adverse credibility finding. See
Singh v. Holder, 699 F.3d 321, 328–29 (4th Cir. 2012) (explaining that the REAL ID Act
overruled the prior requirement that an inconsistency must go “to the heart of the . . .
claim”; finding that the “credibility determination need no longer rest solely on those
matters fundamental to an alien’s claim for relief”).
applicant’s testimony and independently makes the applicant eligible for asylum. Ilunga,
777 F.3d at 213. Tofu argues that the IJ erred by improperly discounting his corroborating
Tofu’s corroborating evidence consists of: (1) letters and affidavits from friends and
family members, (2) letters from BNP leaders, (3) the doctor’s letter regarding his 1996
injury, and (4) numerous country condition reports describing politically-motivated
violence in Bangladesh. On remand, the IJ addressed this evidence and discounted its value
for three significant reasons, J.A. 49–52, two of which we find sufficient. First, the IJ noted
that the evidence was provided almost exclusively by interested friends and family
members of Tofu. Second, documentary evidence was inconsistent with oral testimony
regarding certain key events—in addition to the misdated doctor’s letter, an affidavit from
Tofu’s father made no mention of the 2009 attack, at which he was allegedly present.
Compare J.A. 639, with J.A. 448. Third, the IJ found that certain letters appeared to follow
the same form and used similar language, casting doubt on their legitimacy.5
The IJ may discount documentary evidence from interested parties due to its source.
See Kourouma, 588 F.3d at 241 (citation omitted) (“This Circuit requires that the evidence
offered as corroborating evidence be objective . . . .”); Djadjou, 662 F.3d at 276 (citation
omitted) (“Letters and affidavits from family and friends are not objective evidence in [the
5 In reviewing these letters, we are not convinced that the IJ’s reliance on “uncanny
similarities” among the letters was proper—especially when those similarities are facts
necessary to Tofu’s asylum claim. J.A. 49. Nonetheless, because we find that the IJ’s other
two reasons for discounting the corroborating evidence were sufficient, we will not analyze
the content of the letters further.
corroboration] context.”). When documentary evidence is inconsistent with oral testimony,
this casts doubt on the reliability of the evidence and constitutes a “specific, cogent
reason” for discounting the evidence. See Djadjou, 662 F.3d at 276–77 (stating that
documentary evidence must be reliable). We additionally note that Tofu did not submit any
documentary evidence containing an eyewitness account of either the 1996 or the 2009
attack, the only two events supporting Tofu’s claim of past persecution.
We find that both the IJ (responding to the BIA’s explicit instructions on remand)
and the BIA thoroughly analyzed Tofu’s corroborating evidence and provided cogent
reasons for discounting this evidence. We further conclude that these reasons are
appropriate under our precedent. See id. Therefore, we affirm the ruling that the
documentary evidence was insufficient to rehabilitate Tofu’s testimony.
Tofu urges us to find that the IJ improperly conducted an additional hearing and
took oral testimony on remand. However, Tofu cites no specific authority for this
argument. The BIA order remanding Tofu’s case directed the IJ to make “further findings
consistent with this decision.” J.A. 298. There is no language in the federal asylum statute
restricting factual inquiry on remand, and taking additional testimony appears to fall
squarely within the IJ’s authority. See 8 U.S.C. § 1229a(b)(1) (“The [IJ] shall . . . receive
evidence, and interrogate, examine, and cross-examine the alien and any witnesses.”).
Therefore, we find no error in the IJ’s decision to take additional testimony.
While Tofu may have technically waived any challenge to the agency’s denial of
CAT protection by not explicitly raising the issue in his initial appellate brief, we will
nonetheless overlook any waiver and evaluate his argument. Suarez-Valenzuela v. Holder,
714 F.3d 241, 249 (4th Cir. 2013) (“‘[I]n rare circumstances, appellate courts, in their
discretion, may overlook [the rule that appellants abandon arguments that they do not raise
in their opening briefs].’” (quoting A Helping Hand, LLC v. Balt. Cty., 515 F.3d 356, 369
(4th Cir. 2008))).
The IJ found that Tofu did not demonstrate a greater than fifty percent likelihood
that he would be tortured if returned to Bangladesh. J.A. 53–54. We believe that substantial
evidence supports this determination.
Tofu’s supporting affidavits mention the possibility that he might be tortured upon
returning to Bangladesh. E.g., J.A. 157. However, Tofu does not claim that the Bangladeshi
government or individuals acting under the “consent or acquiescence of a public official”
ever tortured him or directly threatened him with torture. See 8 C.F.R. § 1208.18(a)(1)
(torture entails the intentional infliction of “severe pain or suffering, whether physical or
mental,” in order to obtain information, punish or intimidate). Country condition evidence
shows that police and security forces in Bangladesh frequently use violence to suppress
political protests and that the Bangladeshi police have occasionally tortured political
prisoners. See, e.g., J.A. 215, 602–03. But Tofu was never imprisoned while living in
Bangladesh. The record evidence also suggests that the Awami League government is
working to limit politically-motivated prosecutions and curtail the torture of political
prisoners. J.A. 606; see also J.A. 181 (describing government efforts to prevent torture).
Because we are not compelled to conclude that Tofu is more likely than not to be
tortured in Bangladesh, we affirm the IJ’s denial of Tofu’s CAT claim.
Outcome: For the reasons stated above, we deny the petition and affirm the BIA’s order.