From his cell at New York's Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan, Joe Doherty, a former member of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA), can see a street corner that bears his name.

Doherty, 35, convicted in absentia of murdering a British soldier in Belfast in 1980, is in his eighth year of imprisonment for entering the United States illegally and is awaiting a legal determination on his status.

According to authorities, Doherty (pronounced DOCK-erty) has staged one of the longest and most intriguing battles in U.S. immigration law, fighting deportation efforts by Britain and the Justice Department. In his search for political asylum, Doherty remains in legal limbo, not charged with a crime.

In the latest round, a three-judge panel of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on June 29 granted Doherty the right to apply for asylum as a political prisoner. But the Justice Department requested July 19 that the full court rehear the case.

The appeals court overturned an order a year earlier by Attorney General Dick Thornburgh that had denied Doherty a hearing. It was the eighth decision Doherty has won from federal judges and immigration boards and, like the previous seven, it faces a roadblock.

The government has pursued "every single option that the attorney general has to prevent Mr. Doherty from getting the hearing to which he is entitled," said Carolyn Patty Blum, a law professor at the University of California-Berkeley specializing in asylum and refugee law.

"He simply wants a hearing before an immigration judge to put forth his claim for political asylum, and that's what the 2nd Circuit has agreed that he is entitled to under the Refugee Act of 1980," she said.

Doherty, who has spent almost half of his life in prison, is the longest-held prisoner at the correctional center, a federal pretrial holding facility where his eight-year stay has cost more than $125,000. He has become a hero to New York's sizable Irish community and among Irish-American groups nationwide.

New York Mayor David N. Dinkins (D) has advocated political asylum for Doherty and called him a "political prisoner." The New York City Council voted in June to name Joe Doherty Corner outside the correctional center to bring attention to his case because "the City Council believes that he's entitled to a hearing," a council spokesman said.

Meanwhile, several U.S. officials have described Doherty as a pawn of international politics.

"In the eyes of the Justice Department, Doherty Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), who has visited Doherty in jail. "He's politically expendable. It's just throwing a political bone to" British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

"This is politically motivated justice, and anyone who suggests otherwise is lying through their teeth," he added.

AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland wrote President Bush in April, saying the handling of the Doherty case "raised the most serious civil-liberties issues."

In a letter to Thornburgh in May, Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) criticized the administration for what he called a "serious violation of the principle of equal justice," adding that it "is time for us to affirm in practice once again that the equal application of our law extends even to those of whom we do not approve."

More than 125 members of Congress signed a resolution last year asking Thornburgh to approve Doherty's asylum request and release him on bond pending review of his application.

"He has eight court victories, and the influence of the British government over Mr. Thornburgh has prevailed in keeping Mr. Doherty in jail despite the fact that no charges have been filed against him," said Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy II (D-Mass), who signed the resolution.

On May 2, 1980, in the Roman Catholic New Lodge district of Belfast, according to authorities, Doherty and three other IRA members were ordered to ambush a British convoy on Antrim Road, often used by British military vehicles.

While Doherty's group waited in an apartment house, a unit of the British Army's Special Air Services commandos arrived, and a shootout ensued. Doherty and his men surrendered, and SAS Capt. Herbert R. Westmacott, 28, was found dead with a bullet through his head.

Doherty was charged with murder and incarcerated at the maximum-security Crumlin Road prison. On June 10, 1981, as he awaited the verdict in his trial, Doherty disguised himself as a policeman and escaped with seven other men. Two days later, he was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. By then, he was making his way to New York.

Doherty worked as a construction laborer, then a bartender, eluding detection for 16 months. On June 18, 1983, immigration and FBI agents arrested him for unlawful entry as he worked at an Irish pub in lower Manhattan. He was sent to the correctional center.

Britain requested extradition, sending witnesses and evidence to support its case. But on Dec. 12, 1984, U.S. District Judge John E. Sprizzo ruled that the slaying of Westmacott was a political act not subject to the U.S.-British extradition treaty then in force.

A series of exchanges ensued on possible deportation, which differs from extradition in that Doherty could request a destination rather than be returned only to Britain or Northern Ireland.

In September 1986, Doherty asked to be sent immediately to the Republic of Ireland, where he faced only a 10-year prison sentence for escaping from Crumlin Road prison in Northern Ireland -- where cross-border legislation takes precedent. An immigration judge agreed.

According to court records, Doherty sought the action because he knew that Ireland and Britain then were constructing their current extradition treaty under which, as an Irish citizen sought on criminal charges by Northern Ireland, he would be handed over.

On June 9, 1988, Attorney General Edwin Meese III, overturning a decision of his department's Board of Immigration Appeals, ordered that Doherty be deported to Britain as an illegal immigrant.

Legal authorities predict that Doherty's case will go to the Supreme Court, keeping him behind bars for more than a decade before a final decision on whether he should be granted an immigration hearing.

"Every time Doherty goes before a court of law, he wins," Dodd said. "And every time he goes before political authorities, he loses."