Father waits for case of Virginia man charged in Pakistan

By Karin Brulliard
Friday, March 12, 2010

SARGODHA, PAKISTAN -- Khalid Farooq Chaudhry has spent two decades straddling this city where he grew up and the suburban Virginia life he says he forged for his "American kids." These days he is doing that as he never imagined -- navigating the Pakistani legal system, which three months ago jailed one of those kids on allegations that he aspired to wage militant jihad.

"I can't understand what's happening," Chaudhry, 54, said Wednesday outside the city's courthouse as donkey-drawn carts ambled by. His son Umar Chaudhry, 24, and four friends from Northern Virginia were inside, waiting to be indicted on terrorism charges that could land them in a Pakistani prison for life.

Chaudhry and his wife raised their four sons in Alexandria, and they seemed imbued with the best of both nations, he said -- the respect and piety of conservative Pakistan, the candor and ambition of America.

Now, he said, he thinks that combination might have confused Umar, leading him to make a secretive journey from Virginia to Pakistan in the name of Islam. The young men have maintained that the jihad they envisioned involved helping Muslims in Afghanistan, not fighting, and Chaudhry said he believes them.

"I told him, 'We see Americans shouting in front of the White House. They do it the right way -- they take permission," Chaudhry said. "I think if he understood well the Islamic values, he wouldn't be in this situation."

Pakistani authorities initially suggested that the elder Chaudhry, a U.S. citizen and the owner of a Lorton computer company, might know more than he has indicated about the young men's plans.

When they were arrested at a relative's home in Sargodha in early December after family members in Virginia reported them missing, Chaudhry was also detained. Police said he was connected to a banned militant organization but released him three weeks later, citing a lack of evidence.

Yet while Chaudhry finds himself juggling two worlds, he said he never thought his son did. Umar, a George Mason University graduate student, loved playing tennis and skiing at White Tail resort in Pennsylvania. He was devout -- never a clubgoer -- but he made only occasional visits to Pakistan growing up and spoke poor Urdu, his father said, and never talked of jihad.

But according to Pakistani prosecutors, Umar Chaudhry and his friends, all Muslims ages 18 to 24, confessed to traveling to Pakistan in late November to carry out terrorist attacks. They had exchanged e-mails with a militant recruiter, police say, and possessed a map featuring Pakistani air force bases and other installations that they intended to strike.

Their attorneys say the evidence is thin. Police have not located the militant recruiter, and the map was handwritten, chronicling what was a road trip, said Hassan Katchela, one of their attorneys. They confessed after being tortured, he said.

"The boys have very clearly told me, they said, 'We will die but not lie,' " Katchela said.

Now Chaudhry is a regular bystander to a case wending its way through Pakistan's slow justice system.

On Wednesday, he bought tea for a scrum of milling journalists, who dispersed after the hearing was postponed. He shook hands with police officers, whom he called "very nice people." Chaudhry said he has as much confidence in the Pakistani judicial system as he does in that of the United States.

"I expect the best," he said, although he added that some evidence, including a video the young men left behind, looked suspicious. "They are innocent."

When Umar and his friends left Virginia, Chaudhry was in Sargodha, planning Umar's engagement party. As American as he has become, Chaudhry said, he had not abandoned the Pakistani custom of arranged marriages, and he had chosen a bride for Umar in the nearby city of Faisalabad. Umar had the right to say no -- "I'm a liberal," Chaudhry said -- but he hoped the party, scheduled for Dec. 20, would cement the agreement.

Instead, Umar and his friends unexpectedly showed up in Sargodha in early December, days after they vanished.

Chaudhry said their arrival upset him -- Umar's potential fiancee was finishing exams and did not want to be disturbed, and the men's escapade was inconsiderate to their parents.

"You know the American kids: Sometimes they give too many surprises," Chaudhry said.

Chaudhry said Umar explained that he wanted to get married but that he also wanted to go to Afghanistan to "help his Muslim brothers and sisters" who were suffering "atrocities" amid war. Chaudhry said Umar, who balked at killing ants and had collected money for Darfur refugees, meant he wanted to perform charitable acts.

What pained him, he said, was that his son had concluded that that was the best way to express his faith. Chaudhry said his own life in the United States had made him a "good Muslim" by setting him on a path of hard, honest work in a place where he felt his religion was respected. But the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, had made him and many Muslims fear talking to their children about Koranic concepts such as jihad, which scholars say can mean studying and assisting others, not only fighting.

Chaudhry said he realized his silence had allowed room for mistaken ideas when Umar and his friends arrived in Sargodha. There were other, less "sneaky" ways to help Muslims that could be easily performed in Virginia, he said he told his son.

Four months later, he said, he is heartened that Umar seems to be in high spirits despite his incarceration. He and his friends play volleyball and regularly pray, he said.

Chaudhry said it is difficult to be away from his business, customers and granddaughter in Virginia. It was a relief to speak to an American reporter, he said, glancing around at a dusty town he said no longer felt like home.

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