March 11, 2002
A Sept. 11 Casualty: 'Radio Man' Jailed for a Month, Then Freed
By Christine Haughney
NEW YORK -- "Radio man."
That's what the guard called Abdallah Higazy when he rapped on his cell window. It was better than "Taliban" or "fly the unfriendly skies" taunts the guard used on other suspected terrorists locked up nearby in the Metropolitan Corrections Center. But "Radio Man" was bad enough, for an innocent man.
Higazy spent 31 days there, all but a few hours in solitary confinement. He was accused of lying about a hand-held pilot's radio found in his hotel room across from the World Trade Center on Sept. 11 a radio that, prosecutors said, could have been used to communicate with the terrorist pilots who attacked the twin towers.
He was suddenly set free on a blustery January night, shivering in his cotton prison scrubs. Another hotel guest had claimed the radio. The government had dropped the case. Later, a security guard admitted he had lied about where he had found the device.
During the investigation into the Sept. 11 attacks, more than 1,000 people, many of them noncitizens, have been detained. Some were held on criminal charges, many more on immigration violations, a number as material witnesses and hundreds of them have been deported or freed over the months as the government failed to connect them with terrorism.
One was Abdallah Higazy.
Higazy, an Egyptian diplomat's son who spent almost half his childhood in the Washington suburbs and had just come to New York to go to graduate school, says the event both clarified and blurred his view of the country that is his second home.
He is grateful to those who supported him in jail, especially his American girlfriend of five months. Within minutes of his release, he proposed to her, and they were married Feb. 17; they'll have their wedding reception this summer.
He is less certain about his feelings for his accusers. Immediately after his release, Higazy said he forgave the FBI agents who arrested him and offered to take them to lunch. Then he talked about suing. Over an orange soda and chicken sandwich at a shop near his school, Brooklyn Polytechnic University, he says he's still not sure what he'll do.
"I believe someone thought they were doing their patriotic duty," he says. But asked about it later, he adds: "I didn't know that doing patriotic duty included framing a man and destroying his life, while sitting back and watching."
Nothing to Do but Pray
Higazy used to boast that he'd never even gotten a parking ticket. When FBI agents put the cuffs on him Dec. 17, he politely asked whether he could take care of this later because he had his network communications final. The agents said he had other things to worry about.
It hit him they were serious when prison guards handed him prison scrubs and asked whether he wanted to donate his jacket, jeans, shirt and work boots to charity. Higazy asked to mail them to a friend.
He spent the next month alone in a gray, 10-by-10-foot cinder-block cell. "For starters, not knowing what exactly is going on is a horrible situation," he says. "After that came the feeling of being frightened. After that came the feeling of saying the truth and nobody wanting to believe you."
There was nothing to do but "just pray the five times a day that I am supposed to and read the Koran until I can't anymore." When his fellow inmates called to each other between cells at night, he stayed silent.
"I'm sorry," Higazy says he answered in his mind. "I just don't want trouble."
He was generally treated with professionalism and politeness, he said, though some guards were "jerks." "Nothing physical, everything was just words. But words can hurt."
For his parents in Egypt, their eldest son's arrest was devastating. Higazy's father, Afifi Mahmoud Afifi, was an administrative attache» for the cultural and educational bureau of the Egyptian Embassy, and he and his wife had tried to expose their four children to the best of Western and Middle Eastern cultures. The family moved between Egypt and the United States; Higazy lived in Alexandria and Arlington from ages 7 to 11, and again from 16 to 20.
As a boy, he learned English quickly, got A's and B's in school, and became a fan of tacos and the Incredible Hulk. He was the best of his siblings at explaining to non-Muslims about why Islam required him to pray or fast.
The family's memories of the time are mixed. There was the Christian neighbor who baked them a cake on the prophet Muhammad's birthday. Then there was the friends' daughter who threw away their Christmas card one year because she thought it might be a bomb.
After spending his twenties in Egypt including more than two mandatory years in the Egyptian air force, repairing air-to-ground communication devices Higazy wanted to come back to the United States to get his master's in engineering. He beat out several hundred applicants for a U.S.-sponsored scholarship and came to New York to enroll in Brooklyn Polytechnic.
That was at the end of last summer. On Sept. 11, still hunting for an apartment, he was staying across from the World Trade Center in the hotel where the suspicious radio was later found.
U.S. Girlfriend Sticks With Him
Higazy's imprisonment was completely perplexing to his new girlfriend, Nafeesah Muhaimin, an African American Muslim from Philadelphia. The 27-year-old schoolteacher had met him at a dinner with friends and family in October. They e-mailed daily, and visited sporadically. "It's very hard to find people who are knowledgeable about the religion but they're not strict," she says. "He is just so respectful . . . so kind about wanting to talk to me."
In mid-December, she went with Higazy to pick up the baggage, including his passport, that he had left when his hotel was evacuated Sept 11. "The next thing I know, all of these suits come out," she recalls, and they took her boyfriend away for a couple of hours to answer some questions. Two days later, an attorney called to say he was under arrest.
Her female friends were skeptical. "He's a foreigner," they warned her. "Nine-eleven did happen. Just be careful."
But the little that Muhaimin knew about Higazy didn't fit the profile of a terrorist. She remembered how he said he tried to give blood on Sept. 11. She recalled how he wanted to volunteer as an interpreter for the FBI. "Who was going to be there for him?" she asks.
Through e-mail, she tracked down his parents and friends in Egypt. She visited his professors and tried to reschedule his exams. She clipped off the metal spirals on his notebooks so that she could send them to him in jail.
His unexpected release on Jan. 16 seemed to epitomize the incomprehensibility of the whole affair. When a guard came to his cell that day, Higazy held out his hands to have them placed in cuffs. But the guard said that wouldn't be necessary. Higazy was taken to the U.S. marshal's office where he was asked his name, birth date and address.
"And he goes, 'You can go,' and I'm like, 'Sir, what are you talking about?'" Higazy recalls. "He said, 'You're free.'"
"Then I told him, 'But I can't leave like this. I don't have any money,' and he pulls three dollars from his wallet and goes, 'There you go, you can leave.'"
Stunned, Higazy left. The marshal's secretary walked him to the City Hall subway station and explained about the other man claiming the radio.
After his release, people generally were kind to Higazy. His scholarship program paid his rent while he was in jail. His friends returned to him the clothes and books they had gathered at his Staten Island apartment.
Higazy says he never received an apology from the Millennium Hilton Hotel or its security staff for the confusion.
He muses over the bland statement from the U.S. attorney's office: "We're continuing to investigate the circumstances surrounding the discovery of the radio in Mr. Higazy's room."
It's not a response that leaves Higazy feeling very settled.
"What could have happened," he says. "That runs through my mind every day."
Copyright © 2002, Washington Post Company. All rights reserved.
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