Mistaken Identity Lands Man in Prison

By Gaiutra Bahadur
The Philadelphia Inquirer

The warrant was for Nadar Khan, date of birth, 2-7-59, wanted on heroin-trafficking charges in Texas.

But the morning before Independence Day last year, the FBI, U.S. marshals and immigration agents in Philadelphia arrested Nadir Khan – date of birth, 1-25-55 – the wrong man.

The truck driver languished in prison for seven months after federal agents, armed with a warrant and guns, stormed into the rowhouse on South Seventh Street in South Philadelphia that he shared with several other Pakistani immigrants.

He was and is residing in the United States legally.

“What you did? What’s wrong?” a bewildered Khan said his wife, Narghis, asked him by phone from Pakistan. “What you do in the U.S.? What the U.S. do with you?”

His case – with its Twilight Zone details of mistaken identity – is one example of the government’s post-Sept. 11 crackdown on immigrants gone awry.

The neighborhood Khan quietly returned to three months ago, after his case was finally dismissed, is a tattered, working-class patch of Philadelphia, boisterous with signboards in foreign scripts and steps crowded like backyard barbecues.

Pakistanis living there, small in number compared to their Cambodian neighbors, have been the target of several raids by the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement since Sept. 11.

Last summer, after Khan was arrested, a spokesman for the immigration agency said it was merely pursuing immigrants who had broken laws or were in the United States without the proper documents.

But community leaders said they discerned a pattern of ethnic profiling in the raids and a new requirement for men from parts of South Asia and the Middle East who are not citizens or green-card holders to register with the government.

The scrutiny has left scuff-marks on more than the kitchen door that federal agents banged in when they arrested Khan.

His neighborhood has nearly emptied of Pakistanis who had been here illegally. Some, including four taken into custody with Khan, were deported. Others, part of a nationwide exodus prompted by the registration rule, sought asylum in Canada.

The price paid by Khan, who is a legal resident of the United States, was more than seven months of liberty.

For seven months, he shared a cell with a man suspected of drug dealing in Houston. Meanwhile, he forfeited $21,000 in salary as a truck driver for Preet Apparel in Northeast Philadelphia.

For seven months, he did not pay the electric bills. And his credit tanked.

For seven months, he sent no money home to his family in Shahdrai, a village near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. His teenage son, Sikander, stopped going to high school because he couldn’t pay for the books.

And for a long time, Khan’s gray Nissan Sentra stayed on the street, collecting $504 in parking tickets. The Parking Authority towed the car in September. He still has not retrieved it.

“Why? Why these people put me in prison? For what?” he asked last week, ensconced again at the Seventh Street house, the remains of a hosiery and lingerie shop with a rusted metal grate blocking the entrance.

Four other Pakistanis – one a salad packer in Cherry Hill, the others day laborers who work in farms and factories in the region – share the house.

A yellowed fax machine salvaged from the trash serves as the phone. Papering the wall are posters of Swat, the lush valley where they left behind wives and children that is also a terrorist stronghold. And the latest mega-flick from Bollywood – Bombay’s film industry – is on in the background.

“I cry to everybody: ‘I am not the person. Please help me,’ ” Khan said. ” ‘I am not the person.’ ”

The person prosecutors had been seeking for five years was Nadar Khan, a seaman for Pakistan Shipping Lines and one of four defendants in a heroin-trafficking case.

A Drug Enforcement Agency report described Khan as having brown eyes and a mole on his forehead.

But the Khan arrested in Philadelphia has green eyes and no mole on his forehead, and is four years older. He jumped ship two decades ago, while a seaman for British-owned P&O Ferries, and lived in Texas as an illegal immigrant for seven years. But he moved in 1987, legalized his status, and had tax forms showing earnings in Philadelphia dating back to 1991.

“There was nothing I got that wasn’t already in the [case] file,” said Mona Shah, a New York lawyer who got the charges against Khan dismissed on Jan. 21. “I just made some noise.”

U.S. Attorney Michael Shelby in Houston said that Khan’s previous defense attorneys, appointed by the public defender’s offices in Philadelphia and Houston, did not argue in any pretrial hearings that he was the wrong man.

“Those points should have been brought up to the court,” Shelby said.

“Obviously the U.S. government has the obligation to arrest the individual who has been charged,” he said. “But this is a human process, and obviously there are occasions where humans make errors.”

A tip that a man named Nadar Khan was dealing drugs in Philadelphia led U.S. marshals here to the outstanding warrant from Texas.

Shelby said prosecutors believed they had the right man because of the tip, combined with the shared national origin of both Khans and documents that showed the Philadelphia man sometimes spelled his first name as “Nadar.”

An agent involved in the 1997 drug case said that Nadir Khan looked like the defendant in the heroin case. In South Africa at the time, the agent identified Khan using a photo, rather than face-to-face.

“It turns out that he was in error,” Shelby said. “That is absolutely, truly unfortunate for everyone.

“The system is inefficient, yes. It is a human endeavor, but it is the best system in the world. It did in fact ultimately work. [Khan] did not stand trial and was not found guilty of an offense he did not commit.”

Shah said that ill-founded suspicions that Khan might have links to terrorists played a role in his lengthy detention.

A U.S. marshal who testified against granting him bail in Philadelphia noted there were “a lot of Arabic tapes” in his bedroom, she said.

The tapes were not in Arabic, but in Urdu, the official language of Pakistan. Khan does not speak Arabic.

Nor did they contain instructions for hijacking airplanes, or fundamentalist religious appeals, but scenes of besotted lovers lip-synching, while running into each other’s arms.

Khan is a Bollywood buff. He collects movies with classic soundtracks by Lata Mangeshkar, songbird of South Asia’s silver screen.

“It’s almost funny, yes,” Khan said. “But what they put me in jail for seven months?”

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