Seized last September 12 on an Amtrak train in Texas and then investigated for terrorist ties, Mohammed Azmath hardly measured up to the hype when he appeared at his sentencing hearing in Manhattan last week. He stooped at the shoulders and appeared slight in baggy prison scrubs, dwarfed by the two strapping defense lawyers who flanked him. The crime he had copped to in a plea agreement with federal prosecutors—one count of credit-card fraud—also seemed to fall short of the circumstances.
Indeed, he could have received up to 14 months more in jail, but U.S. District Court Judge Shira Scheindlin let him off with time served. She said, “There’s no question that the 12 months he’s been in custody in this country have been under unusually harsh conditions.” Azmath was in solitary confinement from September 14, 2001, when he arrived at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, until he was transferred to the jail’s general population sometime this August. He was assigned a lawyer only after he was charged with the credit-card crime, in December.
As the government steams ahead with its prosecution of six terrorist suspects in upstate New York and several others around the country, the flimsy outcome in Azmath’s once sensational case is a caution against a rush to judgment.
“He was in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong ethnic background,” said Azmath’s lawyer, Steven Legon, of his client’s arrest. “He was profiled.” Authorities never provided a better excuse for stopping Azmath, 36, a native of India, and his also Indian companion. But Azmath was in the country illegally, and besides, he and his friend were carrying box cutters—similar to those used by the hijackers—hair dye, and several thousand dollars in cash. Investigators discovered the former Jersey City residents had boarded a plane in Newark on September 11 and then switched to the train when their flight, like all others, was grounded.
Despite an investigation that continued into this August, the fishy details never added up to anything. The hair dye was due to vanity (Azmath sported close-cropped, graying hair in court), the box cutters were tools of the men’s newsstand trade, and the cash was for moving to Texas to find better-paying jobs.
Azmath’s lead counsel, Anthony Ricco, told the judge last week that his client “was housed under the most severe conditions I have ever witnessed. In initial interviews with me, he was shackled, he had [on] manacles, and those interviews were videotaped.” Ricco told reporters later that Azmath had been abused in such bizarre ways as being taken to the outdoor exercise area on rainy days and locked outside in the cold for hours. In a May letter to Islamic advocate Adem Carroll, Azmath wrote, “They just give once a week a legal call. I didn’t make any . . . call to my family in eight months.” Lawyer Legon told the Voice he had been denied access to Azmath’s probation interview and has since lodged a complaint.
At the hearing, when he was essentially freed pending deportation by the INS, Azmath spoke publicly for the first time about his detention. Standing, he addressed the court for several minutes, sometimes speaking faster than his limited English would easily allow. “I am singled out on train as a suspect of terrorism,” he said. In the three months he did not have a lawyer, he said, a prosecutor named Eric Bruce interrogated him cruelly. “He said to me many times, ‘We’re going to make your life miserable, your family’s life miserable. You’re not here for immigration [violations]. You’re here for terrorism. You’re going to get the death sentence. You’re never going to see your wife again.’ ”
The government lawyer present objected to Azmath’s claims, calling them “highly incredible and unlikely.” But the Justice Department has told the Voice in the past that investigators are permitted to threaten and even lie in their questioning. Such tactics are not uncommon in more mundane police probes.
“They labeled me as involved in terrorism activities. That damaged my life. I am unable [to be] normal again,” said Azmath. Legon told the Voice that Azmath’s family in India had been “rounded up on several occasions” and questioned by police there, as a result of the U.S. government’s investigation. International media have reported that the family faces deportation from India, and Judge Scheindlin cited the crisis as one reason Azmath should be released now. After ordering him to pay approximately $76,000 in restitution for the money he had scammed with fake cards, she said, “The sooner he can get home, the more chance he has to save his family.”
Azmath’s traveling companion, Syed Gul Mohammad Shah, is still in jail on a longer sentence for a similar fraud charge. At least two other immigrant men arrested in the week after last September 11 remain in prison, lawyers have said, and many hundreds more have been detained since.
Unlike Azmath, the more recent terrorist suspects in Buffalo and Detroit have received due process, with court hearings and attorneys from the start. Their lawyers have vigorously demanded that prosecutors back up their hype with hard evidence, and courts seem to be proceeding with caution as well. Azmath’s case of empty circumstances shows these lawyers and judges are doing the right thing.