Framed for taking a picture

When he took a photograph of the autumn foliage in New York, Ansar Mahmood had no idea he would be accused of plotting a terrorist atrocity. From his prison cell, the former pizza delivery man tells David Usborne why he won't stop fighting for freedom
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The Independent US

Ansar Mahmood has been in the United States for four years and is desperate to stay. He loves the country that adopted him. Through a huge stroke of luck, he was picked in America's annual Green Card lottery four years ago, winning the right to immigrate here and leave his native Pakistan. He settled in the Hudson Valley and found work delivering pizzas. Every month he managed to send money to his family back home.

Ansar Mahmood has been in the United States for four years and is desperate to stay. He loves the country that adopted him. Through a huge stroke of luck, he was picked in America's annual Green Card lottery four years ago, winning the right to immigrate here and leave his native Pakistan. He settled in the Hudson Valley and found work delivering pizzas. Every month he managed to send money to his family back home.

Mahmood, a self-effacing 26-year-old with broken English and an easy laugh, had found his American Dream. Yet, there is one reason why you might imagine that his love affair with Uncle Sam would have soured by now. Of those four years since his arrival in the States, more than two and a half have been spent behind bars. His tale has been less an American Dream and more an American Nightmare.

Everything was right with Mahmood's world until one bright day in October 2001. That was when he started a new and most unwelcome journey that today has still not come to an end. Fortunately, however, his travails have not been ignored. The City of Hudson, a picturesque town about 100 miles north of New York City where he was living and doing his pizza rounds, has many liberal-minded and politically-aware residents who have rallied to his cause. More recently, seven members of the US Senate, including Hillary Clinton, have joined the fight on his behalf.

Today, Mahmood finds that he has become the single most powerful symbol of something that went terribly awry inside the United States in the months after the terror attacks of 11 September 2001. In an atmosphere of paranoia, the country rounded up almost 800 foreign-born nationals - most of them from the Middle East and Pakistan - and interrogated them on the very flimsiest of suspicions that they may have had ties to terrorists. Mahmood was one of those apprehended.

On that autumn day, Mahmood was mesmerised by the colours of the season. On his pizza round he paused whenever he could to take pictures, planning to send them home to his family in Punjab. He had just delivered to a home on Rossman Avenue in Hudson, a street offering the best views anywhere in town, when his customer suggested he walk further up the hill to take more pictures. There, he was told, the vista across the river to the Catskill Mountains to the west was superb. As, indeed, it is.

Mahmood took the advice. At the end of the avenue he saw some official looking buildings behind a chain-link fence. He spotted a security guard and asked if he would take a snap of him with the mountains in the background. What he did not know was that the picture would also take in some of the facility. It was Hudson's main water treatment plant and he had just made the worst mistake of his life.

Soon after Mahmood returned to his modest apartment the police arrived, tipped off by the security guard. These were the days when America, barely recovered from the first attacks, was in the thrall of anthrax scares across the country. Mahmood was whisked to Hudson's police station and interrogated about his visit to the water plant. What was he doing? What was his connection to September 11?

No terror charges were ever filed against Mahmood. But a search of his apartment revealed that he had helped out a local Pakistani couple who had overstayed their visas. Mahmood had co-signed a lease on their apartment and registered their car in his name. He has maintained he did not know that the couple, close friends of his, were in the US illegally. But, on the advice of a court-appointed lawyer, he pleaded guilty to the charges and in January 2002 was sentenced to time served and five years' probation. There, at least, the nightmare might have ended. But it didn't. The crime he had pleaded guilty to automatically required his further incarceration and eventual deportation. He was sent to a federal penitentiary just outside Buffalo - about 300 miles from Hudson - to await his fate. And that is where he remains today, unable to continue with his life, either here or in Pakistan. What will happen, he does not know. He just wishes that he hadn't had his camera with him that day.

"I still haven't had that camera back and I don't think I want it back," he joked during a telephone interview with me from inside the prison last week. "The FBI agents still have it."

Mahmood acknowledged that there have been dark times. "I am only human," he said, agreeing that he has gone through periods of sadness and anger. It had been especially hard enduring the "waiting, waiting, waiting and waiting". Yet, in every other way, his conversation was almost cheerful. "You see in my very pleasant mood when you talk to me that I am very excited," he explained. This is because developments during the past week could mean that an end to his limbo is finally in sight.

Right now, Mahmood feels more gratitude than anger. His thanks are aimed at a group of residents from Hudson and the surrounding towns who have dedicated thousands of hours trying to persuade the government to relent and allow him return to their community. They founded the Ansar Mahmood Defence Committee and meet every Thursday evening to discuss strategy. When they can, they make the 10-hour round trip to Buffalo to visit him. Their next scheduled trip to the prison is for 21 June. They talk to him by telephone, correspond with him by letter and send him books and parcels.

One of the committee's members is Bob Elmendorf, a retired state employee who joined the cause from the start. "When I saw that they took someone out of my our county seat, I took it personally," he explained. That the ultimate consequence of Mahmood helping out his fellow Pakistanis could be so harsh is beyond him. "The guy got caught up in this for an innocent thing. It's not like he committed an assault on anyone. As a matter of fact, he did the opposite. He was trying to help friends."

Elmendorf does what he can to keep the young man's spirits up. A part-time teacher, he sent him a Latin primer textbook last week, although he is not sure if the prison officials will confiscate it. And he writes constantly. "We have been having this letter-writing contest recently. But I think I just blew him off the road. I sent him five letters, a book and a newspaper clipping in 13 days."

The Defence Committee's greatest success has been in raising awareness of Mahmood's plight. It has drawn the attention of the media across America and from countries beyond. Its members hope that their actions will pressurise the US government into release him. To go ahead with the deportation, they reason, would hardly be great PR for the Bush administration. "At this point they need all the help they can get to look good," Elmendorf argued. "This is a prison, after all, and they don't need another prison story in the news."

A coup for the committee was persuading the seven US senators to write a letter earlier this year to the Secretary of Homeland Security, Tom Ridge, pleading with him to intervene. The senators, who included Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, cited a report released by the Justice Department's own Inspector General which excoriated the government for its round-up of foreign nationals in the wake of September 11, large numbers of whom were summarily deported. The senators noted that the report said "it is unlikely that most, if not all, of the individuals arrested would have been pursued" had it not been for September 11. It went on to say that "some appear to have been arrested more by virtue of chance encounters" than by virtue of any hard evidence of terrorist associations.

The letter surely helped. "That was a big effort - it only took about a year," laughed Susan Davies, the main force behind the committee's efforts. But despite all the hard work and the months of frustration, Davies has remained motivated by her sense of outrage over what happened to Ansar Mahmood.

"It's horrifying to think that we could live in a country that first of all would be so blatantly racist to pick people up because of what they look like," she said. "It's a horrible path for us to be going down. It was so shocking that I felt something had to be done. This happened right in the middle of our community and that was one place where we could at least make a start and take care of what was happening right in front of us."

Since his conviction, Mahmood has also had the help of Rolando Velasquez, a Buffalo-based lawyer who has been working pro bono to try to secure his release. Several months ago, Velasquez counselled a risky strategy. He persuaded Mahmood that his only hope was to withdraw an appeal that he had lodged against his impending deportation and file a request instead for special consideration by the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which has final say over deportation matters. He asked that the bureau defer Mahmood's deportation and allow him to be released under supervision. He could then return to Hudson and the life he loved, but would probably have to report into the authorities once a month.

For the government to grant such an exemption would be extremely rare. "It is something that is very discretionary," Velasquez said in an interview. "Basically, this would be an exceptional form of relief. We are asking them to defer the enforcement of the immigration laws."

The request could only be lodged once the successful withdrawal of the appeal was confirmed. That alone was a process that took a year and was finally completed last week. Velasquez believes that the bureau will now work fast and respond to the deferment request within as little as two or three weeks.

This explains Mahmood's upbeat mood when we talked. "It's too exciting," he said. "Maybe this will be happening after a week or maybe after tomorrow. I am hoping that this will be ending in a positive way." Mahmood has several offers of places to live, as well as jobs, if he is allowed to return to Hudson. One person waiting to hire him is his old boss at the pizza place. It was a job he loved, even in the winter time.

"When it was snowing, my boss used to ask if I wanted to keep working. And I would say 'Of course. Why not?' I had never even ridden a bicycle in Pakistan. I couldn't afford a bicycle there. Then, in America, I learned driving. When it was snowing, it used to be just three of us out there. Only me and the police and the third was the man clearing the road. I used to skid sometimes."

At the same, Mahmood knows that the decision could still go against him, which would mean an involuntary flight back to Pakistan very soon. But even in the face of that prospect, he remains disarmingly calm about his future.

"Whatever finally happens, there will be a reason behind it. Only God really knows that reason."