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Malaysian Stopover Proves Costly
Houston man shackled, jailed 27 hours upon arrival at Bush


Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle


It wasn't that federal agents wanted to question him about the overseas trip he had just taken, Firasat Shah says. He insists that he had no objection to answering them.

What left him feeling humiliated and mistreated, he said Wednesday, was that federal agents shackled him and detained him overnight like a criminal, simply because of where he had been.

Shah's eyes welled with tears as he recounted what he says happened to him at the hands of federal agents after he returned to Houston on July 29 from a trip to his native land and Malaysia.

His decision to go public about his 27-hour detention comes as U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft tours the nation to defend the USA Patriot Act, which some civil libertarians say allows federal agents to go too far in the name of preventing another terrorist attack on U.S. soil.

Shah said he waited more than a month to discuss the incident publicly because his wife and three children were still in Pakistan and he was concerned that they might have trouble returning.

Shah, a 43-year-old geophysicist, said agents approached him at Bush Intercontinental Airport as he returned from an almost monthlong vacation in Pakistan and a stop in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where U.S. authorities believe terrorists planned the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole.

He said he visited Kuala Lumpur because he was thinking of asking his employer, whom he declined to name, to transfer him there. That stopover seemed to raise eyebrows, Shah said.

"Hundreds of Americans were visiting that place," he said. "What's wrong with me visiting that place?"

Shah, who is involved with a Houston local-access TV program about Islam, said he interviewed a number of politicians, religious leaders, lawyers and others for the show while in Pakistan.

During hours of questioning, he said, his actions while abroad were twisted into something sinister. He said he was honest with the agents about his political beliefs and his disagreement with U.S. foreign policy in the Mideast, which friends have told him may not have been wise.

"If I had said I agreed with everything (about U.S. policy), maybe it would've shortened" the detention, he said.

"They were trying to intimidate," Shah said, "twisting things and putting things in my mouth that I did not say."

He said he asked more than once to call his immigration attorney or the Pakistani consulate, but was refused.

At about 10:30 p.m., he said, his wrists were shackled to a chain around his waist and his feet were chained together. He said he then was transferred to a federal prison in Beaumont. Early the next morning, he said, he was returned to the detention facility at Bush and then released at about 5:30 p.m.

After an immigration agent told a friend of Shah's that he had been detained, family and friends called consulate officials, the American Civil Liberties Union and others to seek his release.

Others were outraged.

"What qualifies as reasonable grounds for detaining someone for (27) hours?" asked Annette Lamoreaux, East Texas regional director for the American Civil Liberties Union. "Taking a stop-off in Kuala Lumpur, in my mind, doesn't justify it.

"I think this kind of thing happens a lot, and we just don't hear about it because people are afraid" to come forward, she said.

Despite his experience, Shah agreed. He said that, although his decision to go public may bring further scrutiny, he is confident that he made the right decision.

"I'm going to fight my way," he said, "and see how many rights I have here."

2003-09-13 Sat 11:51ct