A Detainee’s Death

A Detainee’s Death

A Pakistani laborer dies in custody of the INS, after the FBI falied to link him anything more sinister than overstaying his visa.


Muhammed Butt, a 55-year-old laborer from Pakistan who was detained for a day as a terrorist suspect after September 11 and then imprisoned for a month on a simple visa violation, was said by authorities to have died of a heart attack. In fact, his heart was misshapen from birth and his coronary arteries were blocked. Wrongly suspected of anthrax exposure and isolated from the world, he was overcome by the stress. As a doctor, I can say that in all ways, he was a man who died of a broken heart.

Muhammed Butt's death illustrates a central problem that is the direct consequence of a zealous backlash against terrorism. Hundreds of people are rounded up without justification, and once interned, they are kept for weeks behind bars without ready access to their families or to lawyers. It is hard to imagine a situation better designed to produce severe stress and depression.

Butt worked all his life as a laborer, often traveling between oil fields in Qatar and Dubai to provide for his family. Last year he came to New York on a temporary visitor visa. His goal, as it often is for those who leave their families behind, was to send home money for his three daughters' weddings and to give his two sons the opportunities in life he'd never had. But he was only able to find odd jobs, first in a deli, later stacking boxes and waiting on tables in a restaurant in Queens. His nephew, Muhammad Bilal Mirza, a longtime resident of Brooklyn, gave him cash whenever he could, but he couldn't drive a taxi like his nephew because he didn't know how to drive.

Mirza describes his uncle as a large man. His picture shows a broad face featuring oversized, oblong ears, a rough, pear-shaped nose and small, squinty, suspicion-raising eyes. He was graying visibly and gaining shadows and lines from rapid aging mixed with worry. Mirza says his uncle never complained of not feeling well. Not long before September 11, he told his nephew that he was considering giving up and returning to Pakistan.

In late September a local pastor reported to the FBI that several men who had arrived in two vans had entered Butt's residence, leading the FBI to investigate. Butt was arrested for overstaying his visa, but, finding nothing to interest them, the FBI turned Butt over to the INS after holding him only one day. Meanwhile, knowing that his uncle had been arrested, Mirza tried to obtain a lawyer, but couldn't afford the $7,000 fee the lawyer quoted. For the next month, the INS held Butt in the Hudson County, New Jersey, jail pending his deportation, during which time Mirza tried unsuccessfully to locate his uncle. Alan Apselbaum, a prison social worker, said that prisoners may call collect on pay telephones inside the prison. "I have no idea why Mr. Butt didn't call anyone," he said.

On October 1 Butt underwent a routine physical. His blood pressure and medical findings were normal, but the dentist started him on an antibiotic for gingivitis. Dr. Francis Molinari, a prison doctor, said that the guards and other prisoners were worried that Butt might have been handling anthrax because he was now taking antibiotics–despite the fact that the antibiotics had been prescribed by a prison dentist–and Butt was compelled to undergo a nasal swab test for anthrax. Dr. Molinari tried to downplay the persecution and isolation experienced by Butt and others. "It's calm here," he said. "Nothing strange is going on."

However calm Butt may have appeared, not complaining of chest pain or anything else, his stress was apparently building. On October 23 he rose as usual before dawn, ate breakfast and passed several hours on his cot, where he was found dead just before 11 am. The New Jersey state medical examiner, Dr. Faruk Presswalla, like many pathologists a keen puzzle-solver after the fact, said, "The stress must have killed him. He already had a bad heart, even if it never affected him before. His coronaries were 70 percent blocked and one of the coronary sinuses was missing. His heart wasn't made to handle a crisis." The seasoned coroner found no sign of trauma, anthrax or even gingivitis, which may have been cured by the antibiotic. "This man was basically healthy," he said. "He could have lived a long time even with his heart like this."

Mirza learned of his uncle's death from the Pakistani consulate, which had been notified by the INS. He also heard from the lawyer he had contacted after Butt's detention. Mirza recalls, "I tell him, 'What kind of help you bring him now?'" At the ceremony of remembrance, he joined irate friends circulating a petition to protest Butt's long internment. This petition was presented to the Pakistani ambassador, in the hope that it could be sent to the State Department and would lead to changes in INS policy. Butt's body was shipped back to Pakistan, and according to Mirza, Butt's wife said she wanted nothing to do with the United States ever again.

Restricting freedom in the name of freedom, our intelligence community risks forgetting why our society chose to call itself free in the first place. Hundreds of people like Butt have been rounded up because of someone's suspicions and remain in prison awaiting deportation. Not charged with a real crime or provided access to lawyers, these people must be deported promptly or freed, or many will languish, and more will die. Our agencies must not terrorize innocent people in their search for terrorists.

Mirza, a US citizen for fifteen years, still says he's proud to be an American: "American people have a wonderful heart. All Americans suffer now and pray for the people who have died." Mirza halts in his speech, listening, wanting to be believed, afraid that because of his uncle he will be lumped into a group that is automatically mistrusted. Mirza says sadly that he has been burning vigil candles since September 11 and volunteering at the Family Assistance Center in Manhattan. "All who died," he says, "are innocent."

Thank you for reading The Nation

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read, just one of the many incisive, deeply-reported articles we publish daily. Now more than ever, we need fearless journalism that shifts the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media.

Throughout this critical election year and a time of media austerity and renewed campus activism and rising labor organizing, independent journalism that gets to the heart of the matter is more critical than ever before. Donate right now and help us hold the powerful accountable, shine a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug, and build a more just and equitable future.

For nearly 160 years, The Nation has stood for truth, justice, and moral clarity. As a reader-supported publication, we are not beholden to the whims of advertisers or a corporate owner. But it does take financial resources to report on stories that may take weeks or months to properly investigate, thoroughly edit and fact-check articles, and get our stories into the hands of readers.

Donate today and stand with us for a better future. Thank you for being a supporter of independent journalism.

Ad Policy