Man held since federal sweep dies near-anonymously in cell

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

He died quietly on the bunk in his New Jersey jail cell, nameless and faceless, another man lost in the federal sweep of more than 900 people detained since the Sept. 11 terrorist assaults.

Muhammed Rafiq Butt was found by his cellmate shortly after 11 a.m. Tuesday, but authorities did not publicly acknowledge his death -- or that he had been detained more than a month ago -- until Wednesday. They said unofficial autopsy results indicate that he died of heart failure.

He had no family here. He had no attorney. He had no visitors at the jail, and he never sought a bond hearing. He wanted to go home, to Pakistan.

For a month he was invisible to the world outside the sprawling Hudson County correctional facility in Kearny, N.J., an 1,800-bed jail that is quickly filling up with federal detainees picked up since the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon were attacked from the air six weeks ago.

Even officials at the Pakistan Embassy in Washington did not know that he had been sitting in the jail, or that at the time of his death he was awaiting deportation home to Jhelum in the Punjab region of his mother country. It is an arid, dry plateau near the Himalayas.

He was 55. He had been in the United States for at least five years, and was charged with overstaying his visa. He most recently had lived on 101st Avenue in the South Ozone Park section of Queens, N.Y. Neighbors on that block said they had never heard of him.

The authorities would not say how, why or where he was detained, following their rule of providing no information about the detainees. Even in death, he remains largely anonymous.

“I think it’s totally depressing. It’s very sad,” said Jeanne Butterfield, head of the American Immigration Lawyers Association in Washington. “It just underscores our concern that there needs to be more openness and transparency about this process. We’ve been clamoring for information about who is being detained and do they have access to counsel? But I can’t get anything.”

Nancy Chang feels equally helpless. Her organization, the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York, is seeking any opening for information on the detainees, but finds stone walls instead. With judges sealing court records and closing hearings, she hears little or nothing.

“It’s pretty extraordinary,” she said. “The gag orders are unprecedented in their scope. It’s all very troubling.”

In a three-paragraph statement, the federal Immigration and Naturalization Service said Butt was taken into custody on Sept. 19 “in connection with the World Trade Center terrorist attack investigation.” It did not say how or why, and it did not name him.

“The detainee was interviewed by the FBI who determined that they had no further interest in him with regard to their investigation into the attack.” The statement did not say why he was no longer a suspect.

The INS determined that he had overstayed his visa, so he came under

its jurisdiction. That has been the story for the majority of the detainees -- passed on to the INS or state and local authorities once the FBI no longer believes they are terrorists.

Butt, who was identified by prosecutors and the Pakistan Embassy, accepted an order by an immigration judge to leave the United States.

“He didn’t have a hearing. He waived his hearing,” said Russ Bergeron, an INS spokesman in Washington. “He simply wanted to be sent back home.”

He was awaiting his travel documents when his cellmate looked in on him on his jailhouse bunk at 11:05 a.m. Tuesday. He was not stirring.

Authorities said there were no visible signs of injury or trauma. A nasal swab was taken to learn if he had possibly been a victim of anthrax poisoning; he was not.

He had complained about a gum disease, and was being treated with antibiotics, jail officials said. They said his heart gave out.

Asad Hayauddin, an embassy spokesman, said the Pakistani government is accepting the finding of heart failure, “until we hear otherwise.”

“He did not contact us,” Hayauddin said. “They all have a right to consular access, but he apparently refused to utilize that right, or so the INS told us.

“A lot of people do that, to avoid embarrassment. So we did not even know about him.”

Had he contacted the embassy, he would have been paid a visit by consulate officials. They would have checked on his well-being. They would have notified his family, possibly attempted to arrange legal help for the detainee, maybe helped him secure a bond. In normal times, he might have have been set free, at least until his deportation.

“But,” Hayauddin said, “when you don’t know about someone, there is not much you can do.”