'I never hated Mark. My religion teaches that forgiveness is always better than vengeance'
Rais Bhuiyan is campaigning for clemency for the man who shot him at point-blank range in a drug-fuelled, post-9/11 hate crime in Texas. Jerome Taylor reports on his extraordinary magnanimity
Saturday 09 July 2011
The last time Rais Bhuiyan saw the man he is now trying to save was the day that same person unloaded a shotgun cartridge in his face.
Mr Bhuiyan, a Bangladeshi immigrant from Dhaka, was working behind the counter of a Texaco garage in Dallas, Texas, when Mark Stroman casually strolled up to the foyer and shot him at point blank range.
It was 10 days after the 11 September attacks and Stroman, then a 22-year-old methamphetamine addict and white supremacist, was in the middle of a drug-fuelled killing spree, hunting – as he later boasted – "local Arab-Americans, or whatever you want to call them".
When police finally caught up with the smirking, self-styled "Arab slayer" two men were dead and his third victim lay in hospital with catastrophic facial injuries.
In just under a fortnight, on the evening of 20 July, Stroman will be taken to Huntsville prison, the busiest execution chamber in America. He will be strapped down to a gurney and injected with a lethal dose of barbiturates until his heart stops beating.
But Rais Bhuiyan is trying to keep his would-be killer alive. In a remarkable show of magnanimity he has gathered together Stroman's victims and is pleading for the state of Texas to commute his death sentence to life without parole. The hill they have to climb is steep. Texas alone accounts for 40 per cent of executions in the United States and permanent stays are almost unheard of. But Mr Bhuiyan is determined seek clemency.
"I never hated Mark and I never felt angry at him," the 37-year-old explains in an interview with The Independent. "He did what he did because he was ignorant. He wasn't capable of distinguishing between right and wrong. It took him several years to come to that realisation, but it did come to him."
According to Stroman's supporters, the heavily-tattooed former stone cutter has come full circle – from a hate-filled supremacist who murdered people purely because of their skin colour, to a remorseful penitent desperate to make amends for what he has done.
Mr Bhuiyan, who was in Britain this week meeting lawyers from the British-American anti-death penalty charity Reprieve, believes executing Stroman will kill any chance he might have of turning fellow supremacists away from hate.
"My religion teaches me that forgiveness is always better than vengeance," he says – a powerful message from a devout American Muslim who, in the post-9/11 era, now lives in a country where tensions surrounding Islam frequently approach boiling point.
No one knows the exact number of hate crimes that were committed in the aftermath of al-Qa'ida's attacks. Anya Cordell, a Jewish campaigner from Chicago, has done her best to document them all. "There were so many incidents of assaults, graffiti, vandalism and death threats – all the way up to murder," she says.
Pinning down whether a murder is actually a hate crime is difficult. But commentators have put the figure at somewhere between eight and 12 killings which were a direct result of the World Trade Centre attacks.
Stroman accounted for two killings and neither of his victims were even Arabs. Waqar Hasan, a Pakistani father of four from New Jersey, was shot dead by Stroman on 15 September. His last victim, Vasudev Patel, was an Indian Hindu.
As Mr Bhuiyan, who still has 39 pieces of metal embedded in his head and has lost the use of his left eye, describes the moment Stroman walked into his garage the rain pounds on the street outside. "It was a day a lot like today," he remarks. "There were fewer customers than usual and one came in wearing bandanna, sunglasses and a baseball cap. He was pointing a gun directly at my face. I'd been robbed before and I just assumed this was another robbery."
"He asked me 'Where are you from?' All I remember was saying 'Excuse me?' Then there was the sensation of a million bees stinging my face and a loud explosion."
For reasons which Stroman has never explained, that day he decided to carry a derringer, a one- or two-shot pistol that fires a shotgun cartridge (John Wilkes Booth used a derringer to assassinate Abraham Lincoln). In his two other killings Stroman used a much more powerful .44 calibre Magnum. Had Mr Bhuiyan been shot with one he would have died instantly. Instead, only the right had side of his face was peppered with buckshot.
"I looked down at the floor and saw blood was pouring like an open faucet from the right side of my head," he recalls. "The gunman was still standing there staring at me. I thought if I didn't pretend I was dying he might shoot me again. So I fell to the floor and after a few seconds he left the store."
As he went through seemingly endless rounds of surgery, Mr Bhuiyan could have been torn up with the same kind of hatred that drove Stroman to try and kill him. Instead he vowed to do something with his life by helping others. During a trip to Mecca two years ago, he felt it was Stroman who needed his help and so began his campaign to save him from the execution chamber.
For clemency to be granted, Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles has to vote in favour by a simple majority. The final say will then be down to Governor Rick Perry. Yet the parole board has recommended clemency only once in the course of 231 Texas executions over the past 10 years. Even then Mr Perry turned it down.
"If the board recommends clemency and Perry grants it, it would be a major paradigm shift," says Dr Rick Halperin, a veteran anti-death penalty campaigner from Dallas. "If they don't then it's going to raise serious questions about what is the nature of clemency when the victims of a crime, the survivor of a crime, don't want this to happen."
Mr Bhuiyan agrees: "Why do they even bother to keep the word clemency in the justice system if every time it is ignored?" he asks. "What is the point of having this word if it doesn't exist?"
With execution day now looming, Mr Bhuiyan has even put in a request to see Stroman in person. "If they let me see him, the first thing I'll tell him is that I don't hate him," he says. "If I have the opportunity to give him a hug, I'll give him a hug. I want him to know I have no anger against him."
Victims of 9/11 backlash
Balbir Singh Sodhi: A petrol station owner from Mesa, Arizona, Sodhi was mistaken for a Muslim because of his Sikh turban and beard.
Adel Karas: An Egyptian Copt Christian who moved to California in search of greater religious freedom, Karas was shot dead by two men who stormed into his grocery shop.
Waqar Hasan: Stroman's first victim; Stroman walked into his Dallas convenience store and shot him in the face. He left behind a wife and four daughters.
Vasudev Patel: Stroman's last victim was an Indian who moved to America in the 1980s with his wife Alka. Secret video cameras captured the killing.
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