Muhammad Qayyum, portly and gray-haired, bumbled into a Brooklyn pizza-and-curry joint for an interview last Tuesday, peering through thick bifocals that clung to the end of his nose. His absentminded air and decaying teeth — two were missing from the bottom row — made him seem older than his 58 years. It was difficult to imagine him as a cog in an international terrorism machine.
But the Pakistan citizen, recently declared “deportable” for the noncriminal violation of overstaying his visa, was jailed for seven months, while the FBI apparently decided whether he was safe to release on bond. Through a translator, he told the Voice of a captivity filled with tricky interrogations, secret court hearings, and sheer bewilderment. Advocates for the hundreds of South Asian and Arab men imprisoned nationwide since September 11 have claimed the vast majority are, like Qayyum, neither criminal nor especially savvy.
On November 18, 2001, Qayyum was at a Ditmas Avenue mosque — a sort of YMCA equivalent where he and several other low-income men worshiped and, for $110 a month, lived, according to Imam Muhammad Khalil — when government agents appeared. Qayyum understood little but knew to hand over his passport. “I thought they were really important and powerful people, and I should respect them,” he said. Initially, he felt little fear. “I know God is very powerful, and He was with me,” he said, with characteristic piety.
He and several others were cuffed and taken to Passaic County Jail in New Jersey. “If I was at the mosque, I would not have let [the agents] in. This is discrimination,” said the imam, claiming such sweeps frighten the entire community. INS spokesperson Russell Bergeron said, “Our normal procedure would be not to make arrests at mosques or schools, but that can be done.” News reports from around the country have documented recent raids of South Asian and Arab neighborhoods.
Qayyum was imprisoned without legal representation for three months. “I had no contact with anybody outside. I had no idea when I would get out. I prayed to God,” he said. He was questioned and appeared in court without counsel; the government does not have to appoint a lawyer for noncitizens. Shubh Mathur, an advocate with Coney Island Avenue Project who frequently visits immigrants in local jails, said, “I heard from other detainees there was this old guy who cried.” They met in mid January, and Mathur found him pro bono help at the NYU Immigrant Rights Clinic.
Even so, his rights were not secure, said clinic attorney Ranjana Natarajan. He was questioned by various agencies, including the INS and U.S. Attorney’s office, without notice to his lawyers, she said. In March, he was transferred for two weeks to solitary confinement in a Manhattan federal prison without her knowledge, or any explanation. Once, Qayyum recalled, INS agents told him, “We’ll get you a green card. Fire your lawyers.” He complied, thinking, “God will help me,” but panicked after his next, solo court date and rehired the clinic.
Says Bergeron of the INS, “I would not want to generalize and say that type of statement [by investigators] would be improper or proper. It all depends upon the circumstances.” The U.S. Attorney’s office declined comment on its reported questioning.
As murky as the interrogations was Qayyum’s designation as a “special” case, said Natarajan. “Nobody knew what that meant. No one would tell us what FBI agent or office to contact, what the FBI investigation was about, nothing. The INS told us they knew nothing.” Qayyum’s immigration hearings were sealed. Last week, the Justice Department copped to 600 such secret proceedings, prompting civil libertarians to wonder whether due-process violations were rampant. Bergeron told the Voice there had been 752 special-case detainees since September 11 — a figure that excludes criminal suspects, material witnesses, and local and state arrestees.
It took lawyers four months of appeals to get Qayyum released on bond, although he places the credit somewhat higher. “God put something into the judge’s heart,” he said. Advocates struggled for another month and a half to raise $5000 bail. Qayyum, who had subsisted on low-wage jobs at greengrocers, knew no one with money. He had, in fact, fled Pakistan in 2000 with nearly nothing, after divorcing a woman whose relatives, he said, threatened him with their police contacts. His lawyers have filed an application for asylum and a complaint about rights violations during his detention.
“I’m very happy to be out,” Qayyum beamed at the halal eatery last week. “It’s like I’m seeing a new world.” He is surviving on donations from community members and carries his most precious possessions on his person: a plastic shopping bag stuffed with legal papers in his pants pocket, and a miniature excerpt of the Koran in a pocket over his heart.
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