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The falsely accused
George Iype in Hyderabad

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Complete coverage: Remembering 9/11
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September 13, 2006 19:05 IST

Five years ago, when American Airlines Flight 11 and United Airlines Flight 175 tore into New York's Twin Towers on a sunny morning and brought down both buildings 103 minutes later, 41 Indians lost their lives.

Monday: The child who lost his mother

Many other Indians saw their future take a different course after the tragedy. They nursed the wounded, aided the victims' families and helped the the US government in the aftermath.

To mark the fifth anniversary of 9/11, in a week-long series, brings to you the stories of some of those Indians for whom September 11, 2001 changed their lives forever.

Tuesday: A father remembers the son he lost

Today: The men who were wrongfully charged

They were childhood friends who studied together, played together, dreamt together -- and together, pursued the American Dream.

"We wanted to make money," recalls an angry Mohammad Azmath. "But instead, we lost all our savings. We lost our dignity, we lost our lives.

"We became terrorists."

On 9/11, Azmath and his friend Syed Gul Mohammad Shah were on a San Antonio, Texas-bound plane out of Newark in New Jersey. It was one of thousands of planes that were grounded across the country in the aftermath of the terrorist strikes.

A day later, the two friends transferred to an Amtrak line train and continued their journey -- until they were abruptly arrested on suspicion of aiding and abetting terrorist acts.

Authorities initially labeled Azmath 'hijacker number 20' -- a title later accorded to Zacarias Moussaoui -- and played Gul one rung lower on the ladder.

The 'proof' of their culpability consisted of box cutters, hair dye and approximately  Rs 3.2 lakhs ($7,000) found in their luggage. The box cutters were tools of their trade as operators of a newsstand; the dye was a symbol of Azmath's vanity, and used to conceal his prematurely greying hair; the money was intended to help them start afresh in San Antonio.

In the climate of the times, such explanations didn't wash. Their arrests were trumpeted as symbolic of swift action by the authorities; they were held in solitary at the Metropolitan Detention Centre in Brooklyn, New York from September 14, 2001 until December that year, when they were for the first time permitted access to a lawyer thanks to the intervention of civil rights groups.

"I was put in a cage for three months," Azmath recalls, of that time. "They would bang on the door once every thirty minutes -- I never slept a wink for all that time.

"I could not contact anyone, I could not make phone calls. They kicked me, abused me, they told me I would never see my family again, that I would be put to death."

It took another 17 months, and much heartburn, before the two friends were finally cleared of terrorism charges. They pleaded guilty to the relatively inconsequential charge of credit card fraud.

"I committed no fraud," says Azmath, pointing out that he accepted the charge merely as a way out of jail. "Yes, I owed some money on my cards, but that is not fraud, that is part of the system.

"They said it was a conspiracy, but delaying payment on your card is not a conspiracy."

The authorities threw every charge they could think of at him, Azmath recalls. "They said I had a pilot's license, that I was a pilot in India. I never had a license, it was a joke. They said I worked in Saudi Arabia, but I have never even been there.

"They wanted me to confess that I was an Al Qaeda [Images] man. I repeatedly said I am an Indian; I told them I am an honourable Indian.

"I thought, often, that I would die in prison."

Finally, the authorities had to downgrade 'hijacker number 20' to credit card fraud, and US District Court Judge Shira Scheindlin let him off with time served. The two friends were deported to India.

They had gone to the US with dreams in their eyes; they returned broke, with nothing to declare but undeserved stigma.

"I had Rs 1.64 lakhs $3,500 with me when I was arrested," Azmath recalls. "They never even gave me back that money."

He has heard that two others who were similarly falsely arrested were since paid compensation. He, however, has not seen a cent -- nor does he have plans to fight for it. "I don't have the money to fight against such a big country," Azmath says.

There is much residual bitterness, and some wisdom. There is, they say today, truly no place like home.

 "In fact," says Azmath, "my life has changed for the better because of that incident. I have realized that I can work and earn money in India without losing my self-respect."

He is happy today, he says; he lives in Hyderabad with his wife, his child, and his father and brother. "Here in India, I get respect and peace of mind. Nobody treats me like a terrorist here," he says.

He has set up a small trucking operation and frequently travels between Hyderabad, Gujarat and Mumbai to coordinate his business. "I am not making great money," he confesses. "But I am hard-working � this is something I have learnt, that if you work hard in India, you can earn good money here also. I think I went to the US because I was a lazy young man in those days and wanted to make quick money."

His friend Shah has similarly settled down into a career in stock and commodity broking. Necessity is the mother of competence, he has discovered. "In the last two years, I have become a good trader," Shah says. "I try to be a consistent player in the stock market, even when the markets are down."

It is the antithesis of their lives in the US. The two friends had gone to America in the mid-1990s, and chased the get rich quick dream through a succession of jobs in grocery stores, department stores and, finally, a newspaper stand in a New Jersey train station where they earned Rs 18,800 ($400) a week.

They shared an apartment in Jersey City, New Jersey, scrimped, saved, and regularly sent money back home to their families.

On September 1, 2001, the newsstand changed owners, and the two lost their jobs. A friend promised them similar jobs in San Antonio, and that is where they were headed when they were swept up in the Federal Bureau of Investigation's widespread fishing net.

Today, the two men say they their abiding feeling is one of relief that the ordeal is finally over; that they are back home where they now know they belong.

Azmath's father Jahangir, who runs a motor spare parts shop at Afzarganj, some six kilometres away from their home in Doodhbouuli in Hyderabad, says the only good that came of his son's ill-fated sojourn in the US was the family home that was built on his earnings.

"I could never make enough money to build a decent house," Jahangir recalls. "So Azmath went to the US to make some money, because he did not want us to live all our lives in a rented home.

"He wanted me to die in a house of our own."

Today, Jahangir hates America. "They called my son a terrorist," he says. "How can they do this to innocent people? America is doomed forever, I tell you."

Tasleem, who had married Azmath, a Pakistani national, on March 11, 2001 during his brief vacation in Hyderabad, cannot recall the immediate past without giving way to grief. "I delivered our first child, a boy named Mohammad Bilal, while he was in jail," she recalls. "Every day I cried, thinking of my husband's fate, not knowing what would happen to him."

Her plight was no better. When Azmath was jailed in the US, Indian authorities came knocking on their doors; Tasleem, they said, would be deported to Pakistan.

Asaduddin Owaisi, then a member of the state assembly, intervened and got her permission to stay on, on humanitarian grounds. She then approached the Andhra Pradesh high court and was granted a year's extension on her visa.

When Azmath returned from the US, he found his wife embroiled in a legal battle. "We applied for Tasleem's citizenship in May this year," Azmath says. Under Indian law, a foreign national married to an Indian can apply for citizenship after five years in India.

Perhaps because the future is yet uncertain, Tasleem focuses on the simple pleasures today has on offer. "It is so nice to see him (Azmath) taking our son to school every morning," she smiles. "He always does that before he goes to work."

Azmath had at one point dreamt of taking Tasleem, and his child to the US. Memories of that dream now evoke a shudder. "Me, go to the US again? Are you crazy? I hate that country," he says. "Here I have dignity; I will not go abroad ever again.

"I am convinced India, my mother country, is the best place to live and die in this world."

The two childhood friends remain in touch, their already strong bonds reinforced by the memory of shared troubles.

Shah and his family live half a kilometre away from the Azmath home in Doodhbouuli.

Like Azmath, Shah had seen the US as a means to break out of the crippling poverty his family � mother Gul Begum, five brothers and two sisters � were mired in.

"I was the only educated man in my family," says Shah, who during a visit home in 2000 married local girl Fathima Rayees. "So I went to make money for my family's survival."

"I worked hard in the US. I sent all my savings here, and built this two bedroom house," he says. "But now I feel ashamed that I am living in a house that we built with US dollars."

The bitterness of the past, though, is overlaid with hope for tomorrow. "The stock market in India is booming," he says. "I have made some money. I am trying to be a wise player.

"In India, if you are honest and work hard, you can live peacefully. There is no honesty and truth in the US. America is home to all evil in the world."

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