At an asylum hearing, she claimed that as a "queen mother" in waiting, she had violated tribal law by becoming a Christian, secretly falling in love and losing her virginity. If forced to return to Ghana, tribal elders would punish her by cutting her clitoris, she told an immigration judge.
"I will be mutilated, and my lover will be found and executed," she said in an affidavit. "After that, I will have to live the rest of my life in shame."
Her plight won her the support of then-first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, feminist Gloria Steinem, actress Julia Roberts and other celebrities and politicians.
But authorities now allege the name and story were all part of an elaborate hoax.
The bid for political asylum made a "mockery of the immigration system and real victims of genital mutilation," prosecutor Ronnie Abrams said Monday at the opening of a federal fraud trial in Brooklyn.
Prosecutors allege Regina Danson, 33, used Adelaide Abankwah as a fake name and a doctored passport to illegally enter the United States. They also accused her of lying at her immigration hearing.
Defense attorney Dawn Cardi, however, insisted Danson's plight was real. She questioned the credibility of a tribal chief who was drafted as a key government witness, saying it was doubtful "he even knows my client's name or clan."
If convicted, Danson, who is free on $200,000 bond, could face up to 10 years in prison and deportation. Her trial was expected to last through this week.
Danson first requested asylum on March 29, 1997, after being arrested for trying to enter the country with the falsified passport at John F. Kennedy International Airport. She was sent to a detention facility in Queens, where she remained for two years.
Despite her frightening story, an immigration judge denied Danson's asylum application, noting that Ghana had outlawed female genital mutilation in 1994 and that her identity was in doubt. The decision was reversed by an appeals court in 1999, after she attracted some high-profile support.
"I pray no one else will ever have to suffer the way I did for my freedom," the woman told reporters at a news conference celebrating her release.
In 2000, an Immigration and Naturalization Service investigation concluded Danson's story was all a fabrication and that she was a former Ghanaian hotel worker who assumed the identity of another woman named Adelaide Abankwah. She was indicted last year, only days before a statute of limitations would have run out on perjury and false-statement charges.
The tribal chief, Nana Kwa Bonko, testified Danson was not part of the tribe's royal family, and that mutilation was not practiced in his region of Ghana.
"Nobody is cut," he said.
The Washington Post reported in December 2000 that the real Adelaide Abankwah, also from Ghana, was living in Maryland and had cooperated with the immigration agency. The newspaper reported the woman acknowledged that her given name was Regina Norman Danson, but she stood by her claim that she faced punishment by genital mutilation if she returned to Ghana.
A lawyer for the woman, Dennis M. LaRochelle, had said the woman also acknowledged in court testimony that her given name was not Adelaide Abankwah, but that she had taken that name shortly before arriving in the United States.
Female genital mutilation, typically performed on girls before puberty, ranges from cutting the tip of the clitoris to removing all external genitals. According to Amnesty International, an estimated 135 million of the world's girls and women have undergone genital mutilation. It is practiced extensively in Africa and is common in some countries in the Middle East.
By Tom Hays