By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, July 3, 2007
STOKE-ON-TRENT, England, July 2 -- A resident of this pottery-making town in central England recalled Mohammed Asha, a prime suspect in Britain's recent car-bombing scare, as a professional and family man who spoke with the authority of the doctor he was.
Symon Plant, 34, said Monday that when the Jordanian-trained physician moved last August with his wife and young son into a three-bedroom house owned by Plant's family, Asha asked whether his wife would face abuse because she wore a burqa.
Plant described Asha as a tall, thin man who spoke clear English and wore traditional Muslim clothes. His wife wore a burqa, leaving only her eyes visible, Plant said, which made her stand out in Chesterton, a neighborhood with few immigrants and Muslims.
Asha told Plant he was moving from a town in Shropshire, also in the heart of England, and that his wife had been "racially abused" there when wearing her burqa. Plant said: "He asked me, 'Do you think she will have a problem here if she goes to the shops?' and I said, 'No.' "
Neighbors had noticed that the family never had any visitors, Plant said, but a couple of weeks ago, a few men wearing long beards and Muslim dress came and stayed overnight. Plant said Asha had planned to leave the house this month.
In Amman, Jordan, Asha's father, Jamil, denied that his 26-year-old son had any terrorist leanings, the Associated Press reported. "My son is a moderate Muslim and carried out his religious duties, but he never embraced fanaticism," he said. Residents here said Asha is a neurologist who works at the local North Staffordshire Hospital.
Asha and his wife were arrested Saturday night as they drove on the M6, a major nearby highway. A group of unmarked police cars forced their car off the road. The vehicle was reportedly spotted by roadside camera technology equipped to recognize license plate numbers.
The arrest shocked residents of Stoke-on-Trent. "This is not London," said Carol Higgins, 34, a grocery clerk in this quiet city, which is world-famous for its pottery. "We are known for Wedgwood china, not bombers."
"We are just stunned," said Carol Nixon, a telephone engineer and neighbor, as forensic officers hauled plastic bags full of material from Asha's home into their vans. "This kind of thing just doesn't happen around here."
Residents of the small cul-de-sac said the usual activities here are children kicking soccer balls and homeowners tending to the roses, lilacs and lilies in their front gardens.
For the first time anyone could remember, armed police were at the Stoke railway station on Monday.
Stoke-on-Trent does not have a large Muslim population, unlike the two major cities it lies between, Manchester and Birmingham. But residents said more Muslims have moved here, working in call centers, shops and hospitals.
At North Staffordshire Hospital, the area's largest, a spokesman would say only that the hospital is "cooperating with the police investigation." But the suddenly famous local doctor was what patients were talking about.
"I'm gobsmacked," said Derek Matthews, 60, as he left the neurology department with his daughter, who suffers from multiple sclerosis.