A Jan. 10 article about an Indian Muslim's detention in the United States misstated the location of his home town. Hyderabad is about 775 miles south of New Delhi. (Published 1/11/03)
Nine years after he set out to chase the American dream, Ayub Ali Khan returned home with nothing more than a white mesh bag, bearing his prison identification number, slung over his shoulder. Pulled off a train in Texas the day after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Khan spent more than a year in U.S. jails -- an ordeal he calls "a long night of terror."
Khan, 36, an Indian Muslim, was arrested and questioned about the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, but eventually was ruled out as a suspect. Deported late last month after pleading guilty to credit card fraud and serving 13 months in prison, he sat last week in the cramped living room of his home by the winding alleyways of Hyderabad's old city, 100 miles northeast of Karachi, Pakistan, and spoke in detail about his detention.
Grueling interrogation, solitary confinement and what seemed like endless mental torture, he said, left him "as good as a dead man." "I feel I am the real victim of the attack" on Sept. 11, Khan said. "Just look at how much my family and I suffered due to the faulty American investigation."
Khan, a thin, balding man with a soft voice and piercing eyes, said he was confined to a small cell on the ninth floor of the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn. While acknowledging that the physical hardships he was subjected to were mild by the standards of Indian jails, he said he underwent interrogation so severe that he was not sure he would survive it.
"The interrogation rounds terrorized me," he said. "Five to six men would pull me in different directions very roughly as they asked rapid-fire questions. . . . Then suddenly they would brutally throw me against the wall."
Khan described repeated questioning about possible links with terrorist groups or other terrorism suspects, and about anything he may have overheard about preparations to attack the World Trade Center.
"They even asked if I ever discussed the situation in Palestine with friends," he said. The officers would flash newspaper articles with his mug shot, he said, and tell him: "You will be here for a long time. You are going to die in prison."
A spokesman for the Justice Department, Bryan Sierra, declined to comment on Khan's specific claims of mistreatment while in U.S. custody. Any civil rights complaints can be investigated by the department's inspector general, he said. "The department is committed to civil rights and civil liberties in the course of any investigation," Sierra said. "That commitment does not waver."
FBI and Justice Department officials have strongly defended their treatment of Khan and a friend, Mohammed Jaweed Azmath, also an Indian Muslim, arguing that they were arrested under obviously suspicious circumstances in the immediate aftermath of the attacks.
Khan's saga began when he and Azmath boarded a flight at dawn on Sept. 11 in Newark, bound for San Antonio. The men, who shared an apartment in Jersey City and had recently lost their jobs at a newsstand at the Newark train station, were traveling to Texas to live with friends and take up new jobs. Khan said it was his first trip outside the New York area in eight years of living in the United States.
But when hijacked jetliners struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon that morning, U.S. authorities ordered all air traffic grounded. The plane carrying Khan and Azmath landed in St. Louis, and they decided to finish their journey by train.
The following day, near Fort Worth, "my humiliating ordeal began as soon as the four officers barged into the Amtrak train and began searching my luggage," Khan recalled. "I was shocked and asked why. One of them curtly replied, 'Disturbing behavior.' " When the officers discovered Khan and Azmath were carrying about $5,000 in cash, black hair dye and box cutters -- similar to those believed to have been used as weapons by the Sept. 11 hijackers -- the two men were handcuffed and taken into custody.
"We were singled out. It was based on racial profiling," Khan whispered softly, his hands trembling.
He said he routinely used the box cutters in his work at the newsstand. "I was caught because I was a Muslim," he said.
Like most of the roughly 1,200 people detained nationwide immediately after Sept. 11, Khan was held on immigration charges. His papers showed that his visa had expired and that he was therefore in the United States illegally. Khan and Azmath were kept in isolation in high-security cells in Brooklyn and subjected to several rounds of intensive interrogation without access to a lawyer.
"The maltreatment, denial of rights, no lawyer, no court date, no respite from the solitary cell, severe incarceration in shackles and repeated questioning. . . . It was no mere immigration inquiry," Kahn fumed.
That December, a senior law enforcement official said that "after three months, there's just no link between them and everything else in any respect." The following month, Khan and Azmath were indicted on charges of conspiring to commit credit card fraud. The indictments, which made no mention of the Sept. 11 attacks, accused the men of using false credit cards to run up bills of over $1,000 and selling cards and other bogus documents to others.
They remained behind bars, and their treatment, Khan said, did not change.
He said the "daily brutality" and the "mean" behavior of the prison guards made him feel utterly vulnerable. Every day, he would be escorted in shackles and handcuffs to a cell with a barbed-wire roof for "an hour of fresh air." On rainy days, he said, "they just left me standing there, drenched and in chains, for as long as four hours."
Khan said that he watched guards throw away half of his food before handing it to him and that he lost 25 pounds during the incarceration. And when he would sit down to pray, the guards would deliberately start banging on his door.
"Sometimes the prison guard would tighten my ankle chain real hard, and it would hurt like hell when I walked. And then he would kick and trip me," he said. "They would twist my handcuffed wrist and I would cry out in pain and beg them to stop."
Khan said the mental trauma he and his family endured was crippling. All his money was taken. He did not get a lawyer until he had been in custody for 54 days. Five months passed before he could make a phone call to his family in India, whose frantic pleas for information about his case were largely denied on grounds of national security.
Now, Khan is home, and Azmath is expected to return this month.
"Although justice was finally done, I have to live with the stigma of being a 9/11 suspect forever now," Khan said. "America has destroyed my future."
He paused for a moment, remembering the late-night talk-show host he enjoyed watching when he lived in the United States. "Jay Leno made fun of everybody," Khan said. "I wonder if he ever cracked jokes about people like me caught endlessly in detention centers after 9/11?"
Staff writer Dan Eggen in Washington contributed to this report.