Iceland grants citizenship to Bobby Fischer

Watai, fiancee of chess grand master Bobby Fischer, shows his new Iceland passport in Tokyo
Miyoko Watai, fiancee of chess grand master Bobby Fischer, shows his newly issued Iceland passport in Tokyo on March 8, 2005. Iceland's parliament granted citizenship to Fischer on Monday.   Yuriko Nakao / Reuters file
/ Source: NBC News

Iceland's parliament granted citizenship to fugitive U.S. chess star Bobby Fischer on Monday, the latest twist in a lengthy legal process for the reclusive chess master.

The legislation, passed with 40 lawmakers voting "aye" and two abstaining following a brief debate, became law immediately. How the Japanese government will react to the latest development is unclear.

When the chess legend resurfaced in the news after being detained by Japanese authorities on July 13 for allegedly traveling on an invalid passport, none of his supporters expected his ordeal to last so long, or to be drawn out into a political drama on an international scale.

"I'm really ashamed of such an illegal behavior of the Japanese government," said Masako Suzuki, Fischer’s lawyer.

For the past eight months, the former chess champion has been resisting deportation to the United States from his detention cell at the East Tokyo Immigration Center.

According to Suzuki, he's been confined to a prison-like environment, shunned from the outside world with only 45 minutes a day to stretch outdoors, limited visitations, and phone calls screened by detention guards.

Trouble with U.S.
Trouble began for Fischer in 1992 when, ignoring a U.S. Executive Order, he participated in a re-match tournament against his archrival Boris Spassky in the former Yugoslavia, which at the time was levied with international sanctions.

Fischer defeated Spassky and won $3.3 million. But later that same year, he was issued with an arrest warrant carrying a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison for violating the economic embargo.

Fischer has since declared his retirement from professional chess and kept a very private life, with the occasional exception of making controversial appearances on obscure radio programs to tongue-lash at the United States, or spew off his anti-Semitic views.

One of his most notorious outbursts was in 2001, on the day of the Sept. 11 attacks, when he called into a radio station in Baguio, Philippines. "This is all wonderful news," he exclaimed. "It's time to finish off the U.S. once and for all."

But, as Fischer continued to travel between Asia and Europe, no effort seemed to have been made by the U.S. government to apprehend him.

In 1997, he walked into the U.S. Embassy in Switzerland and had his passport renewed and even had new pages added to his travel document five years later.

Nevertheless, 13 years after the warrant was issued, Fischer was finally captured by Japanese immigration officials at Tokyo's Narita Airport, acting on a tip from the U.S consular office.

Several lawsuits were immediately filed by his lawyers to prevent his deportation to the United States. Fischer even unilaterally renounced his American citizenship from his detention cell, declaring "enough is enough.”

Iceland returning a favor
While the injunctions have temporarily halted his expulsion, the latest twist came from Iceland, the host country of the historic 1972 battle between Fischer and Spassky, which ssued a temporary passport.

"He put our country on the world map when he beat Boris Spassky in 1972," said Einar Einarsson, the former head of the Icelandic Chess Association. "Iceland is the only country in the world to step forward and help Bobby Fischer.”

But so far, the Japanese authorities have refused to release him. It is unclear how the Japanese government will react to the Icelandic parliament granting Fischer citizenship on Monday.

"In principle, one must be deported to the country of origin," maintains Masaharu Miura, head of Japanese Immigration Bureau. "This is no exception.”

The insistence by Japanese officials that Fischer be deported to the United States has some even suggesting that Tokyo is under pressure from Washington.

When Kazuya Shinba, a member of the major opposition party Minshuto raised these allegations during a recent parliamentary hearing, Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura replied, “I don’t recall being asked by the United States to do anything about Mr. Fischer."

But opposition lawmakers are still charging that there is a bias in the way Fischer's case has been handled by Japanese authorities.

"This is absolutely incomprehensible,” said Mizuho Fukushima, a former human rights lawyer and the leader of the Social Democratic Party who is also fighting for his release. “Had this been anyone else, he would have been freed already.”

Meanwhile, Fischer, who turned 62 this month, is said to be the oldest person held at the detention center and supporters are urging for a quick resolution.

Miyoko Watai, the head of the Japan Chess Association and Fischer's fiancée, spoke to the press earlier this year and described her visits to the detention center. “When he sees me he shouts the same words every time, 'Get me out, get me out. Tomorrow or this week.'"