New York Times
November 5, 2001

Ill-Fated Path to America, Jail and Death


They found him around 10:30 on the morning of Oct. 23, lying face up on his cot, inside a first-floor cell in the Hudson County Correctional Center in New Jersey. Muhammad Rafiq Butt, a native of Pakistan, had been arrested for being in the country illegally, one of hundreds who had been picked up on the basis of tips from an anxious public in the days after the Sept. 11 attack on the trade center.

A preliminary autopsy revealed that Mr. Butt, 55, whose one-year stay in the United States seems to have been hapless from the very start, had coronary disease and died of a heart attack. A one-day investigation into the death by the local prosecutor concluded that no foul play had been involved.

So Mr. Butt's body was washed and embalmed according to Muslim custom. It was placed in a sealed steel coffin and on the evening of Oct. 27 was shipped in the cargo hold of Pakistan International Airways Flight 712, from Kennedy Airport to Lahore, Pakistan all paid for by the federal government. Last week, Mr. Butt's family buried him in his hometown, Jhelum.

His death obligated the Immigration and Naturalization Service to do something it had not had to do during the 33 days it had him in custody: talk about him publicly and explain the circumstances behind his arrest, detention and death.

It was revealed that he had been picked up after a tip to the Federal Bureau of Investigation from the pastor of a church near his home in South Ozone Park, Queens. His sole crime was overstaying his visitor visa. It took the F.B.I. a day to determine that it had no interest in him for its investigation into terrorism. He chose to appear at his deportation hearing without a lawyer, even though he spoke virtually no English and had little education. From jail, he made no calls to his relatives, nor to the Pakistani Consulate in New York.

No one seriously questions that Mr. Butt's death was anything but natural. But it does give a rare glimpse into the process by which the government has detained hundreds of people since the attacks and how little information is publicly known about them. For some, including consular officials and Mr. Butt's relatives, discovering the details surrounding his death only underscores how little they had been told about his life in I.N.S. custody.

Of the more than 1,100 people that law enforcement authorities have picked up since Sept. 11, about 200 have been held by the I.N.S. solely for violating the nation's immigration laws. Federal officials have defended their enforcement policies. And the United States attorney general has said that deporting people who are in the country illegally is not only justifiable but also perhaps an effective way to root out potential terrorist threats.

Mr. Butt, it turns out, was waiting to be sent home when he died. That day, Oct. 23, he and his fellow inmates were awakened as usual around 4 a.m. He ate breakfast and lay down on his cot, his cellmate, another Pakistani held on immigration charges, told authorities.

That man, whose name was not released, was out of the cell between 8:30 and 10:30 a.m. When he returned, he tried to wake Mr. Butt. He could not. Guards were called. A jail doctor pronounced Mr. Butt dead at 11:05. Dr. Lionel Anicette, the medical director at the correctional center, said Mr. Butt had had a heart attack the sort of thing, he said, that could be "precipitated by stress, sometimes acute stress."

Mr. Butt's tale is the quixotic journey of a man who set out for a new life in America at the sore- back age of 54. The father of two sons and three daughters, he came for the usual reasons: to make some money and, in his case, to be able to marry off his daughters in style. "Whoever have enough money over there doesn't come over here," is how his nephew, Muhammad Bilal Mirza, a taxi driver from Brooklyn, explained Mr. Butt's reasons for emigrating.

Muhammad Rafiq Butt was born in another era: on Jan. 1, 1946, when what is now Pakistan was still under British rule. He seems to have had little education. He ran a clothing store with his older brother, Mansoor. Like many Pakistani men with strong backs and mouths to feed, Mr. Butt also spent more than 10 years traveling back and forth as a laborer in oil fields in Qatar and Dubai.

Last year, he got lucky: the United States government granted him a visitor visa, and he came to New York on Sept. 24. But in New York his luck ran out. His hair was gray, deep lines set in around his mouth. He had little success scratching around for work. "Who hires a 54-, 55-year-old guy?" Mr. Mirza said. "He has no paper. He don't speak English very well."

Driving a cab was out of the question; Mr. Butt had never been behind the wheel of a car. He sold newspapers on the street for a while. He filled in at a deli. A few months before his arrest, he found a job stacking boxes of sweets at a popular Pakistani cafe in Jackson Heights.

Sometimes, Mr. Mirza said, he gave his uncle a little cash to get by; $20 went a long way. "He no smoke, he no drink, he don't go nowhere," is how the nephew put it. The last time he saw his uncle, the older man had come over to his house, Mr. Mirza said. He told him he had had enough of this rat race. He wanted to go home to his family in time for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which begins on Nov. 17.

When the authorities arrested Mr. Butt, they wrote this of his assets: "Subject has $0.00 in his/her possession." His property receipt at the jail shows three items: a laminated identification card from Pakistan; a copy of his Pakistani passport; and an "envelope with misc. writing on it."

According to documents obtained from the I.N.S. under the Freedom of Information Act, Mr. Butt came to the attention of the authorities on Sept. 13, from "lead No. 1556."

That was a call from St. Anthony's Church to report that two vans one white, one dark had stopped outside the apartment Mr. Butt shared with three Pakistani men on 125th Street in South Ozone Park in Queens.

"When the doors of these vans were opened, at least six (6) Middle Eastern males exited from each vehicle and immediately went into the residence," one document states.

The pastor at St. Anthony's, the Rev. James Mueller, confirmed that he had called the F.B.I. to report the van siting and two other incidents that he heard about from "parishioners who were afraid." He declined to say anything more.

Lead No. 1556 led an F.B.I. special agent, along with an I.N.S. officer and two New York City detectives, to knock on Mr. Butt's door on Sept. 19. Asked for his papers, he could produce no more than photocopied pages of a passport and a visa that had expired last December. The F.B.I. arrested him, but he turned out to be of no use to its investigation. Early the next morning, the bureau turned him over to the I.N.S., which filed deportation papers and sent him to the Hudson County jail.

The customary basic medical examination at the jail showed a man in normal health. He was deemed to be at no risk of suicide. His blood pressure was normal: 100 over 70. He complained only of a pain in his mouth, and a jail dentist, on Oct. 1, diagnosed gingivitis and prescribed an antibiotic.

Yet like much of Mr. Butt's life, the thing that killed him was revealed only after his death.A preliminary autopsy showed that his coronary arteries had narrowed.

In hindsight, the gingivitis could have served as a flag for a heart ailment, said Emily Hornaday, a spokeswoman for the state medical examiner's office: gum disease is sometimes found among heart patients. But the medical director at the jail, Dr. Anicette, said that it was hardly routine to call for a cardiologist just because a patient had gingivitis. Besides, he said, the inmate never complained of chest pains, nor told a doctor about a heart problem.

Mr. Butt's one opportunity to make his case before an immigration judge came at a hearing on Oct. 15, almost a month after he was arrested. But he appeared without a lawyer. At his side was only an Urdu interpreter, who, according to Mr. Butt's I.N.S. files, seems to have helped him check boxes and sign his name, in Urdu, on countless forms.

At the hearing, before Judge Daniel A. Meisner, Mr. Butt accepted what is called a voluntary departure order. He was to be sent home straight from jail. Why he remained there, eight days later, is a mystery. The I.N.S. contends that it requested travel documents from the Pakistani Consulate, but consulate officials say they heard nothing from the agency until word of Mr. Butt's death.

Today, Mr. Butt's nephew, Mr. Mirza, says he is still bewildered by what happened to his uncle in jail. Why did he never call? Why did the government hold him when he was useless to its investigation and wanted to be sent home? Mr. Mirza said he learned of his uncle's whereabouts only when another Pakistani inmate called to tell the family of Mr. Butt's detention.

"Maybe he's upset and he don't understand what they're asking the I.N.S.," Mr. Mirza said. "Nobody says, `You don't have to tell my consulate, you don't have to tell my relatives."'

What Mr. Butt actually told anyone will most likely remain a mystery. His wishes can be gleaned only in the series of checked boxes and official statements, contained in his I.N.S. files.

For instance, on a form dated Sept. 20, when he was first taken into I.N.S. custody, he is asked whether he wanted his consulate informed. The "No" box is marked with an "X." Next to it stands his signature.

On another document, also dated Sept. 20, is this now-eerie first- person account, typed above his signature: "I admit that I am in the United States illegally, and I believe I do not face harm if I return to my country," the statement reads. "I wish to return to my country as soon as arrangements can be made to effect my departure. I understand I may be held in detention until my departure."

Copyright 2001, New York Times Company. All rights reserved.

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