A Detainee's Death

By Siegel, Marc | The Nation, December 3, 2001 | Go to article overview

A Detainee's Death


Siegel, Marc, The Nation


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.

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