"lead No. 1556"

Muhammad Rafiq Butt was a victim of the events of 11 September 2001. He wasn't given any memorial or television time. No flowers or weeping relatives for the camera. He was a victim all the same. Not of any direct violence, but neglect, incompetence, and the pursuit of "security" borne of fear.

Muhammad Rafiq Butt is dead and he didn't have to be.

Coming to America.

Muhammad was born in Pakistan in 1946, where he had a wife, three daughters, and two sons. For a time he helped run a clothing store with his brother, but economic demands made it necessary for him (he didn't have a lot of education) to seek work elsewhere. For ten years he spent time going back and forth to work the oil fields of Qatar and Dubai. Traveling hundreds of miles to support his family. In September 2000, he traveled even farther—to the United States (New York)—on a temporary visitor visa with the intention to work for a while and send back as much money as he could. As any good parent would want, he hoped to give his daughters nice weddings and his sons more opportunities than he had.

Unfortunately for Muhammad, he spoke poor English and had never learned how to drive. This left him little opportunity to get employment beyond odd jobs and manual labor. As his nephew, Muhammad Bilal Mirza, said to the New York Times, "Who hires a 54-, 55-year old guy? He has no paper. He don't speak English very well." Muhammad did what he could. He sold papers on the street, worked at a deli, waited tables, and stacked boxes of sweets at a Pakistani cafe.

Mirza (who drives a taxi) gave him money when he was able, but not much. Still, Muhammad was frugal—as his nephew noted, he didn't smoke or drink and never went anywhere. It was all for the good of his family. Yet he also realized that his attempt to provide more for his family was not very successful. The last time his nephew saw him in 2001, he had told him he was going to give up the "rat race" and go back to Pakistan. He was hoping to again be with his family in time for Ramadan, which began 17 November that year.


Muhammad had not counted on the attacks of 11 September 2001 and neither had others. Nor what would happen in the wake of the tragic events. The fear of further attack, of a fifth column of terrorists posing as Muslim immigrants (sometimes simply "Arab" was used). Insecurity, uncertainty, and fear. In times like that, people all too easily choose a sense of "security" over freedom and liberty. And it's all too easily justified by those fears and anything or one questioning that justification becomes suspect.

And it was into the whirl of post-September 11 that Muhammad fell.

On 13 September, a call from some "parishioners who were afraid" (NYT) came to Father James Mueller of St. Anthony of Padua church—located in the same neighborhood in Queens where Muhammad was sharing an apartment with three other Pakistani men. Apparently, they were already viewed suspiciously by certain people in the neighborhood for doing such things as acting "very strange." As one resident said: "They hang their laundry—even their underwear—on the fence. Who does that?" (The Wall Street Journal). They also never said "hello" to people, kept their blinds drawn, rarely mowed their grass, and kept "odd hours."

If his roommates had similar working conditions, some of this should not seem suspicious. If they were also unfamiliar with and poor users of the language as well as unfamiliar with cultural mores that dictate clothes-hanging and lawn care then none of this should seem suspicious. A policeman who lived across the street called in the license plates of one of the cars in the driveway to see if it was stolen (it wasn't). And this was before September 2001.

Neighbors claimed that following the 11 September, more and more people came to visit the men. Supposedly two vans (one black and one white) had shown up at the apartment and "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" (INS document obtained under FOIA, as reported in the NYT). First one parishioner called Father Mueller. He didn't take it too seriously—until he got more calls. Mueller visited the place, himself: "There was all this coming and going. The lights were turned off. The house didn't look right" (WSJ). Mueller did not know or try to engage any of the men in conversation.

But he became concerned. Concerned for the neighborhood, for his parishioners, for the 80 children in the church nursery school. After praying over the course of action to take, he decided that "We have 6,000 people dead [the generally accepted number at the time], and these people could be involved. I don't want these guys running around and blowing things up" (WSJ).

Mueller placed the call (the FBI wouldn't confirm it had acted on the tip as of 21 November 2001) with clear conscience. Muhammad Rafiq Butt became "lead No. 1556."


On 19 September, two New York City detectives, an FBI special agent, and an INS officer went to Muhammad's door. When asked to present his papers, all he had were photocopies of his passport and his expired visa. This was enough to take him in (the visa would have justified an INS detention). It only took that day of questioning for the FBI to determine that he wasn't a suspect and had no information valuable to them. He was then released to the INS the next morning for the immigration violation.

Deportation papers were filed against him and he was removed to the Hudson County Correctional Facility in Kearny, New Jersey (illegal immigrants are held in custody until deportation). He was to remain there until the process was completed and he was deported back to Pakistan. He never walked out. Meanwhile, his nephew tried to get him a lawyer, but the asking fee ($7,000) was more than he could pay. He continued to try to find out where his uncle had been sent for the next month. He would never see him alive again.

At the facility, Muhammad received the customary medical exam. He was found to be in adequate health and had normal blood pressure. He was determined to not be a suicide risk. Other than a complaint about some pain in his mouth, he seemed fine and mentioned no medical conditions. A dentist examined him (1 October) and found he had a bad case of gingivitis. So Muhammad was prescribed a five day regimen of anitbiotics.

When given a chance to make a phone call, he chose not to make one (apparently, this isn't as uncommon as might appear—many illegals will not call because of the shame or embarrassment involved in deportation). On 15 October, he went before the immigration judge. He did not appear with a lawyer, only an interpreter who spoke Urdu. According to the INS, the interpreter helped him check the boxes on the numerous forms and sign his name. There was a "no" box marked "X" under a typewritten statement on one of the forms: "I admit that I am in the United States illegally, and I believe I do not face harm if I return to my country." It adds that "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" (NYT). He was given what is called a voluntary departure order.

According to the NYT, he was to be immediately sent home from jail. This did not happen. On the forms, the "no" box was checked next to whether or not he wanted to inform his consulate. The INS claims, following the hearing, that it requested travel papers from the Pakistani consulate, but the consulate states it knew nothing of Muhammad until his death.

Despite them being prescribed by the jail dentist, Muhammad's taking of the antibiotics made him appear suspicious to the guards and other prisoners. It made them suspect that he had been handling anthrax. He was even made to undergo a nasal swab to test for it. The whole situation of waiting and living under suspicion must have caused a great deal of stress.

The death of Muhammad Rafiq Butt.

On 23 October—a little over a month from the day police, FBI, and immigration knocked on his door—Muhammad was found dead in his cell. He had gotten up around four and eaten breakfast like the others and returned to his cell to lie down on his cot. According to the official story, his cell mate was out of the between 8:30 and 10:30 AM. When he returned, he was unable to awaken Muhammad. Guards were summoned and Mr. Butt was pronounced dead at 11:05 AM.

The cause of death was ruled to be a heart attack, despite having had no complaints previously (more later). It was determined that his coronaries had a 70% blockage and one of his coronary sinuses was missing (a defect from birth). As the New Jersey state medical examiner explained, "The stress must have killed him. He already had a bad heart, even if it never affected him before.... His Heart wasn't made to handle the stress." He added that "This man was basically healthy. He could have lived a long time even with a heart like this" (The Nation).

This contradicts Mueller's statement in response to the death, that "This is very sad for the family, sad for him, but he could have dropped dead in the street" (WSJ). In fact, it was not just something that was inevitably going to happen under normal circumstances—at least any time soon—but being arrested, interrogated, brought up for deportation, incarcerated, and held in suspicion of being a terrorist (the anthrax issue, if not the general suspicion of many Muslims then and since by those at the correctional facility) was enough to cause what can, according to the medical director at Hudson, be "precipitated by stress, sometimes acute stress" (NYT).

Muhammad was probably glad to know that his gingivitis had cleared up. It turns out that that gum disease can be a red flag pointing to the possibility of a heart problem. Since it would not be "routine" to have a cardiologist take part in the medical evaluation, this made it under the radar.


Shortly after his death, his nephew heard again from the lawyer he had contacted. "I tell him 'What kind of help you bring him now?'" He held a small ceremony of remembrance and got some of his friends—all of whom were similarly outraged—to write out and sign a petition to protest the long detainment. They gave it to the Pakistani consulate, hoping it would be passed on to the US State department.

Muhammad's body was washed and embalmed in a way customary for a Muslim, sealed in a steel coffin, and then shipped back to Pakistan, where it was buried by his family in his hometown of Jhelum.

The rest of the story.

With the death of a detainee, the INS had to acknowledge Muhammad's existence. Especially when the story got out (before being largely forgotten). On the other hand, it made no effort to acknowledge that part of the reason he died can be attributed to its own mishandling of the situation, which put undue stress on someone who should have already been sent back home. Part of the INS statement said that "If you take Mr. butt out of the 9-11 context, his case would not have been handled any differently. It is always disturbing to us when somebody in our custody dies, even when it is attributable to natural causes" (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette). Aside from the fact he would likely have already returned home on his own had he not been rounded up as a suspect of terrorism (of which he was completely innocent) and the "natural causes" that were a result of the stresses placed on him during detention.

The INS also made things difficult to investigate. On 29 October, Human Rights Watch wrote to the FBI, the INS, and the Hudson County prosecutor's office in an attempt to gather information on the death of Muhammad. Things it was trying to discover were "information about the medical screening he received when he arrived," "any conflicts of any kind with other detainees," whether he was a troublemaker (which might tempt the prison officials to neglect him). They also wanted a copy of the autopsy, a list of any medication he might be taking when he arrived, whether he had complaints or requests while detained, the nature of any dental work done, and if he had seen a doctor while there.

Over a month later (6 December), they received a reply from INS headquarters in Washington, D.C. It refused to offer any information "due to laws relating to privacy." The group was told to contact the Newark director with any further questions. It also noted that "when you contact the District Director, please be sure to have written consent from Mr. Butt stating that that office is able to release information concerning his case to you. This statement should contain his name and your name and his alien number with his written signature" (HRW).

In case that went by too quickly: the INS informed the human rights group that in order to get information on the death of a man in their custody, it was necessary to provide the decedent's explicit approval to look into his own death.

The spokesman for the county, maintains that "that's [the gingivitis] all he complained about" (The Progressive). In January 2002, HWR representatives were able to meet Muhammad's cell mate (another Pakistani man, held on immigration charges). Contrary to earlier reports, in which the man (unquoted) "told authorities" what had happened (the story related above), he had something else to say.

He told HRW that Muhammad hadn't been feeling well for days and that he had helped him fill out request forms for medical attention—"five or six," "He would fill out one and wait two days. When there was no answer, he'd fill out another one." Apparently (if this story is correct), he got no answer. The morning he died, according to the cell mate, Muhammad had been feeling pain and had "banged on the door for five or ten minutes" before the lack of response resulted in his simply going back to sleep. This was denied by the INS, saying "We have absolutely no information to substantiate any of these allegations being propagated by Human Rights Watch" (The Progressive).

Those left behind.

While hundreds of thousands of American flags flutter from family cars and stickers adorn bumpers across the country, Muhammad's wife—husbandless, left to care for her daughters and sons—wants nothing to do with the United States ever again.

His nephew (a citizen for 15 years) still says he's proud to be an American. He said that "American people have a wonderful heart. All Americans suffer now and pray for the people who died." And like many, he lights vigil candles and volunteers his time (at the Family Assisstance Center in Manhattan). "All who died are innocent" (The Nation).

So was Muhammad Rafiq Butt.

"I don't think these people meant any harm, but when you act suspicious constantly in times of crisis you bring it on yourselves. They could have been making anthrax by the ton in there."
—Father James Mueller

They weren't.

Addendum: There is another article (fairly widely available online), attributed to "IslamOnline & News Agencies." In it, "Rafiq Butt" is claimed to have been 42 and that his cousin (Aziz Butt) stated that an autopsy performed in Pakistan "revealed marks on Rafiq Butt's body suggesting he had been subjected to severe torture before his death. The report found multiple fractures in his cousin's legs and chest, as well as deep bruises on the body." It is also claimed that the FBI deliberately delayed the transport of the body back to Pakistan and had first insisted on burying it in the US. Supposedly the family is considering legal action against the various governmental agencies involved. Aziz further adds that "They have surpassed our police, which is blamed for custodial and extra-judicial killings. Of course it was a murder. They have killed him without any proof."

I was unable to find any corroborating articles available. The spokesman for the hospital named (Mayo Hospital Lahore), according to the story, "could not be reached for comment." While I cannot vouch for the veracity of the article, it seems important to mention in relation to the story.

The source for the article is here: www.islam-online.net/English/News/2001-11/01/article15.shtml

(Sources: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 27 October 2001; New York Times 5 November 2001, The Wall Street Journal 21 November 2001; The Nation 3 December 2001; Human Rights Watch press release 14 December 2001; The Progressive March 2002; all sources are available online)