My Afghan friend Mir saw his cousin Gulabuddin arrested on a rape charge in London. This is what happened nextby James Fergusson / May 20, 2004 / Leave a comment
The story so far In the August/September 2001 issue of Prospect, James Fergusson described how, in 1998, he had helped his friend Mir (then given the alternative pseudonym Wahidallah) to escape Afghanistan and claim asylum in Britain. Mir had worked as a translator for Fergusson in Afghanistan but, as the civil war intensified, found his life under threat in Mazar-i-Sharif and was forced to flee to Islamabad. Fergusson met him there a year later, and agreed to help him get to London and claim asylum on the condition that, once the bureaucratic hurdles had been cleared, Mir would neither expect nor ask for any further help. Once in London, Mir, to Fergusson’s surprise, kept his word. Granted asylum, he contacted distant family friends, found himself a flat in the east end and slipped into the Afghan immigrant groove – signing on, taking a series of badly paid jobs, sending the bulk of his wages back to Pakistan to help support his exiled family. Troubled by the prevalence of sexual imagery and alcohol, and longing for his family, Mir had deeply ambivalent feelings about his life in London. Then, four years ago, two of his brothers and a cousin smuggled themselves into England. Fergusson began to record the story of what looked set to be a family reunion of Afghans in London. In reality, however, it was the beginning of a disaster.
Gulabuddin was always the likeliest of the three arrivals from Afghanistan to make a mess of his life in London, although none of us could have predicted how spectacularly. His depression should have been lifted by the success of his recent asylum appeal. Perhaps it had been – perhaps his subsequent behaviour was a last spontaneous act of joie de vivre before the arrival of his wife and children. Yet what he did was so illogical, so stupidly risky, it was hard to avoid the conclusion that he was still not quite right in the head.
I didn’t know him well. I was only connected to him via his cousin, Mir, my interpreter and fixer from the days when I worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan. I had helped Mir gain asylum in Britain three years earlier. His work for me and other western journalists, notably Lionel David of the BBC, had put his life in danger. I thought that we westerners collectively owed him at least that much. He was clever, resourceful and spoke good English – a fine example of a well born and well educated Pashtun. So it wasn’t too long before he established himself and settled down in a smart east London council flat. The complication was his family.
In the summer of 2000, a year before the problems began, two of Mir’s brothers and his cousin Gulabuddin had without my knowledge smuggled themselves into England in the standard way, arriving at Dover in the back of a truck. Mir was thrilled. As with most Afghans, family was sacred to him; he lived through it and for it. The thought of seeing his relatives again had sustained him through many lonely nights in this alien city, and if he could not return to them, then they would have to come to him. I felt ambiguous about the arrival of the newcomers. On the one hand I understood that eventual family reunion was the likeliest, and perhaps only, means by which Mir would ever be happy again. On the other, I inwardly groaned at the memory of the home office paperwork and court appearances I had undertaken on Mir’s behalf. The thought of repeating this dreary cycle in triplicate did not appeal.
Unlike Mir, the newcomers spoke little English and struggled to adapt to their new life – particularly Gulabuddin, the eldest of them. Back in Afghanistan, he had been a respected professor of mathematics. Here, however, he felt less than nothing. He pined for the wife and three children he had been forced to leave behind, and sank into despondency. I had seen him slobbing around Mir’s flat, which he seldom left. His uncertain mental state was exacerbated by what had happened to him back home. The Taleban had applied electrodes to the soles of his feet, and beaten him so badly that he still passed blood in his urine. At one stage he had been locked in a partially flooded cell with a rotting corpse for company.
I was in my office in Mayfair when Mir rang.
“I don’t know what to do. It’s my idiot cousin. He’s done something… werry stupid and he is in prison now. The police arrested him and he gave a false name. James, I am so ashamed. I can’t tell anyone.”
It seemed that Gulabuddin, without telling his cousins, had been making some extra cash by minicabbing around the east end. On the previous Friday he had picked up a passenger from a wine bar, a young white female, who was now alleging that Gulabuddin had “done things” to her in the back of the car.
“What sort of things, Mir? What are we talking about here – sexual assault?”
“Something like this,” Mir muttered.
“You mean it’s more serious? Did he rape her? What did the police say?”
“He says he never did it. He says that she was leading all the time and that he just followed.”
“But the charge is rape?”
It was rape. I began thinking furiously what this might signify – for Gulabuddin’s own future, for the future of his wife and three children, for the chances of the family’s reunion, anywhere, ever. If convicted, would the home office seek to deport him? It seemed a reasonable bet. Even if he were allowed to stay, his name would surely be added to the police register of sex offenders. There would be no chance of his working as a teacher. There was also the little matter of what several years on the sex offenders’ wing of a British prison might do to him.
Could he really have raped someone? He was a gentle man, but also powerfully built. He had not seen his wife for over two years. On a summer’s night with an attractive white woman in the back of the car, probably drunk, perhaps appearing to be available – who was to say he had not succumbed to a moment of male madness and done something terrible?
I was sure that his young cousins were incapable of such a crime. They were more disciplined, more saturated in the strict mores of their Pashtun upbringing. They understood the risks of misbehaving in Britain, the fragility of their status here. Gulabuddin was not focused. He was bored and frustrated. The secret minicabbing sounded like a desire for independence and a chance to get away from the claustrophobia of Mir’s flat. The fact that he gave the police a false name sounded ominous too.
“I am so angry with him,” Mir continued, with shame in his voice. “I don’t understand why he didn’t go to a prostitute if he wanted to do this. I didn’t want to tell you. But yesterday they moved him from the police station to some other place. Pent… Penting something. A big prison for proper criminals.”
“Who else knows? Have you told your family?”
“Only my little brother Musa. I can’t tell my father. It would kill him. Do you know the penalty for adultery in Afghanistan?”
It was stoning to death, of course. And nowhere were the injunctions of Shari’a law more zealously or literally followed than in modern Afghanistan. Worse still, the Shari’a law punishments were decreed by the Muslim clergy – and the head of Gulabuddin’s family was a senior Shari’a judge. This was already a personal disaster for Gulabuddin, even if he were ultimately acquitted of rape in an English court.
I recalled a conversation I had had the year before with Kahar Walji, a solicitor specialising in asylum in Dollis Hill. His words suddenly seemed eerily prescient. He had, he said, handled 3-4,000 Afghan asylum cases in the previous five years. Since he was generally an asylum-seeker’s first and only contact with the English legal system, they usually came back to him when they got into trouble with the police. Yet in the whole five years that he had been dealing with Afghans he had handled fewer than a dozen serious crime cases.
“They are good citizens. Very law-abiding,” he said, leaning back in his tilting chair. “They assimilate well. They are the most adaptable people.”
“What about the criminal cases?” I asked, perhaps expecting him to mention involvement in heroin smuggling or the funding of terrorists.
“In almost every case the charge has been sexual assault,” said Walji, and he didn’t doubt the reason: “It’s the media’s influence. They see western women on television – and they get the wrong notion. They think women here are loose and… asking for it, if you understand me.” His sexual assault clients were also of a type: “Waiters, minicab drivers – I’ve had two of those – they are often in jobs that bring them into a lot of contact with women. Especially drunk women. They think, ‘she wants me to squeeze her breasts.’ And so sometimes they try it.”
“What’s the defence? Do you try to explain the culture gap to the judge?”
“That never works. The judges always say the same thing. The driver of a minicab is in a fiduciary position vis ? vis his passenger, with a duty of care. It’s a principle of English common law. They take a dim view of anyone who breaches that trust.”
The only light in the darkness was Mir’s conviction that his cousin had not raped the woman. He had spoken to Gulabuddin in a police cell before his transfer to Pentonville, where he swore by the beard of the Prophet that he was innocent.
Gulabuddin’s version of what happened was this: it was one o’clock on a Saturday morning and he was driving the woman to her home. On the way she made several mobile phone calls to a man on night shift at her office. Although Gulabuddin’s English was still poor, he understood just enough to work out that she had a crush on this man, and that the man wasn’t interested. But she had plainly drunk a few glasses of wine, and persisted with the calls. Halfway home she ordered Gulabuddin to make a detour to her office. She intended to visit the man she fancied, on the pretext of retrieving her umbrella. In the office car park she made a further telephone call, but she was refused admittance to the building. She then remained in the back of the car for over an hour, lovelorn and maudlin, fretting to the half-comprehending Gulabuddin about her uninterested lover. Eventually, Gulabuddin suggested that she should either get out or let him take her home, but she refused to move. So he got out and opened her door, whereupon she invited him to join her on the back seat. He regretted it deeply now, but he had allowed her to pull him in. He had no idea why she had phoned the police once she had finally got out of the car, although he suspected it was a ruse to gain attention from the man who had spurned her.
“And you really believe him?” I asked Mir when he had related all this.
“James, I made him look me in the eye,” he replied. “He swore he did not do this thing.”
“I’d like to hear it for myself. Can we see him?”
It took a fortnight to arrange the visit to Pentonville prison. Mir’s arrival in the visitor centre on the Caledonian Road was shadowed as usual by Musa. We filled in forms and progressed through a gloomy maze of bullet-proof doors, emerging at last into the cavernous visiting hall. The inmates sat at tables arranged in long rows, dozens and dozens of them, most of them black, the mostly white prison guards patrolling the spaces in between like teachers in an exam hall. The prisoners were separated from their visitors by a crenellated partition that came no higher than the waist, making it easy to lean across to kiss or touch a wife, girlfriend or child. There were moments of intense intimacy going on all around.
Prisoner number JM4810 was dressed like all the others in a grey tracksuit and red nylon bib. He rose to greet us with a faint smile, murmuring something as he shook my hand in the formal way, placing his right hand on his heart and ushering me to sit. Mir indicated a vending machine and asked if I wanted tea. Even here they were clinging to their traditions like mariners to a shipwreck.
“What I want,” I said, “is to hear what happened from Gulabuddin. Right away – all of it, in detail.”
Gulabuddin’s story took almost an hour to tell. Mir had to pass on everything in English, and there were frequent interruptions. Musa could not stop himself from haranguing Gulabuddin, jabbing the table with a forefinger. Ordinarily this would have been considered impertinence towards an elder and Mir would have brought him to heel like a naughty puppy, but he didn’t intervene because he was furious with his cousin too. By the end of his narrative Gulabuddin could barely raise his eyes from the table.
Yet his version of events was impressively consistent with the one related by Mir, and he gave no indication that he was guilty of rape. There was even a plausible explanation for why he had given the police a false name. His Afghan driving licence entitled him to drive a private car in Britain, but insurance companies did not cover minicabbing on such a licence. His solution was a classic example of Afghan resourcefulness: he falsified a British driving licence, turning himself into an anonymous London Pakistani: Zahid Amin Khan, place of birth Rawalpindi, now resident at the patently false address of 88 Noor Shah Avenue, London SW18. I saw a photocopy of the fake document later, and was stunned by its verisimilitude. Mir said that such forgery was common practice in the east end. It later emerged that 18 of the 32 drivers at E-Z Cars, the minicab office that Gulabuddin worked for, had done the same as he had. The police had traced him through this office and arrested him just down the road, so when they asked if he was Zahid Amin Khan he had naturally replied that he was.
I pushed Gulabuddin hard on the details.
“Why did you let her pull you into the cab like that?” Mir translated. Gulabuddin simply shrugged.
“Was she pretty?”
The answer was long and evidently lyrical. An almost nostalgic look flitted across Gulabuddin’s face.
“He says she had hair the colour of dates,” said Mir.
“Of dates. And then what? Who undid your – you know. Your fly.”
Emphatically: “She did.”
“And what was she wearing? A skirt, or trousers?”
“And did you pull down her trousers?”
“No. She did.”
Suddenly, a violent scuffle broke out nearby between guards and another visitor, over an attempt to pass drugs to an inmate. Gulabuddin broke off from his story, musing about how much heroin he had seen in the prison. “All from Afghanistan,” he added with the ghost of a smile. He was probably right: at least 80 per cent of all heroin in Europe originates in Afghanistan. Pentonville, one of Britain’s busiest prisons, is hopelessly overcrowded, and lacks sufficient guards. The previous week this shortage had caused a riot on D wing, and it had taken an emergency draft of 350 police officers to coax them back inside.
“Tree hundred fifty,” Gulabuddin exclaimed, strangely impressed by the Met’s big turnout. It was only slightly encouraging that he was at last starting to learn a bit of English.
“I hope you weren’t involved.”
“No. I am on R wing – R for Rumi,” he added, rolling his r’s preposterously.
I caught the reference, and smiled. His cousins often quoted Jalaluddin Rumi, a 13th-century mystic and poet who was born in Balkh, where the family used to go on picnics. Rumi spent most of his life in modern-day Turkey, but the Afghans regard him as one of their own. His verse displays a mixture of sensuality and spiritual rigour that is distinctly Asian in character. It is laconic, almost aphoristic, and seems to lose little in the translation from the Persian. It is also perfect prison poetry, what Mir called qaza-ye ruh, sustenance for the soul.
Weep like the waterwheel,
That green herbs may spring up
From the courtyard of your soul.
If you wish for tears,
Have mercy on one who sheds tears;
If you wish mercy, show mercy to the weak.
The world is a prison and we are the prisoners:
Dig a hole in the prison and let yourself out!
Visiting time was soon over, and the brothers parted from their cousin without much apparent emotion. As we stood to leave, however, Gulabuddin said one thing more in an insistent voice.
“He says he wants to stand trial because he knows in his heart that he is innocent,” Mir translated tonelessly. “He says that England is a fair country with a strong legal system and that justice is sure to prevail if Allah wills it.” Gulabuddin’s faith in the justice system was worryingly naive. He was going to have to work hard to prove his innocence, which would be far from obvious to a typical English jury. It was clear that he hadn’t begun to understand how much trouble he was in. But the conviction behind his assertion of innocence was impressive, and in the end I was persuaded he didn’t belong in Pentonville. So out in the prison car park I offered to stand bail for him.
The solicitors had warned that in the unlikely event of bail being granted it would probably be set at around ?10,000. It was an impossible sum for the brothers to raise, but I had enough savings to risk it, and the money would be recoverable after the trial, providing Gulabuddin turned up for it. When Mir had arrived in London I had undertaken to help him only in the event of emergency. This surely qualified. I was certain that Gulabuddin’s best chance of resuming a normal life was to get out of prison as soon as possible. But Mir looked at me blankly before turning away and conferring with Musa. Musa listened, then answered emphatically in the negative.
“Don’t you want your cousin to get out of here?”
“Musa thinks they should throw away the key and leave him in there forever,” Mir answered for him.
“You can’t be serious.”
“Not forever – maybe just for two weeks more. He’s not showing proper shame for this thing.”
“You mean you think he did it?”
“Not the rape,” Mir shook his head impatiently. “The adultery. I told him, if he had done this in Afghanistan he would be under the ground by now.”
“But he’s not in Afghanistan any more!”
“Adultery is serious,” Mir continued, “werry serious. The Prophet (peace be upon him) says there are only three circumstances in which a Muslim must be executed. If he turns his back on Islam and his community; a life for a life; or if a married person commits adultery. It is even the same for you. Did not Allah say to your Moses, thou shalt not commit adultery?”
“Not on pain of death,” I protested. It was amazing how easily Mir could still switch into mullah-speak.
“Gulabuddin has dishonoured me in London,” he continued. “He has dishonoured my family. He has gone minicabbing without telling me while Musa has worked hard in a pizza shop.”
Musa nodded self-righteously.
“Man, your prisons are too soft. He’s sitting around in there watching television all day.”
There wasn’t that much television available in Pentonville, but Mir’s broader point was unarguable. I had seen for myself the medieval conditions in Afghanistan’s jails. Overcrowding, stifling heat, stygian darkness and beatings were the norm; and all of this family had experienced them at first hand.
“It may be better than in Afghanistan, but this prison is still not a good place to be,” I said. “Shouldn’t we at least lodge an application for bail?”
Mir was unmoved. “Two weeks more,” he said.
Later that evening I was back in my flat watching television, nursing a whisky and feeling deeply sorry for Gulabuddin. The night’s programming happened to be particularly prurient. It was no wonder that he was confused about western sexuality.
Six weeks went by before Gulabuddin was granted a bail hearing. It was held in a courtroom at the Old Bailey. My doubts about the police-nominated lawyers were confirmed when their appointed barrister failed to show up. A substitute arrived at the last moment with a fold-up bicycle under his arm, panting for breath, his bald head sweating. He knew almost nothing about the case, and couldn’t even pronounce Gulabuddin’s name. Yet the judge responded as well as could be hoped. I stood to attention in my pinstripe suit and he looked me up and down, visibly surprised by a bail application in a case such as this.
“May I ask,” he said, “how you know the accused?”
He was prepared to grant bail, a small victory in itself, but there was one problem. If Gulabuddin was bailed, he could not return home because his flat was too close to that of his alleged victim. The judge would not countenance the possibility of a chance meeting between the two of them ahead of the trial. But up popped the bald barrister.
“My lord,” he said, “I haven’t actually raised this possibility with Mr Fergusson, but you will see from the papers before you that he lives several miles from the area in question, on the other side of London. Would it be acceptable to your lordship if the accused were to stay with him pending trial?”
“Well, Mr Fergusson?” said his lordship. “Would that proposition be acceptable to you?”
I squirmed, conscious of Mir watching from high above in the public gallery. “I mean, yes of course, in principle, your honour, although… I can foresee certain difficulties with that solution.” I lived in a one-bedroom flat, and the trial could be months away. Did I really want a depressed Afghan refugee sleeping on my sofa for all that time? But the judge saved me.
“No,” he said, with a wry shake of the head. “It isn’t fair to impose a condition like that on the bailor. Come back in a week, and if you can provide an alternative address then I will grant bail as appropriate.”
“Thanks a lot,” I said to the barrister afterwards.
“Yes, sorry about that. But it’s a good result. I never thought he’d get bail, it’s rare in rape cases. Must have been the suit you’re wearing.”
Mir knew plenty of people who would willingly have put Gulabuddin up, but he was reluctant to approach any of them because to do so would mean letting them in on a shameful secret. The potential damage to his family’s reputation was a theme that he returned to again and again. In east London he had already circulated a cover story, telling inquirers that Gulabuddin had been imprisoned for minicabbing without a proper licence – a fiction that caused a minor panic among the local Asian minicabbing community. He would later tell his father in Pakistan that Gulabuddin had run over and killed a child, and risked a long prison sentence as a result. Theirs was a topsy-turvy moral universe, in which it was preferable by far to be guilty of manslaughter than of adultery. In the end, however, Mir had to choose between Gulabuddin spending several months more in prison or his immediate release. He finally saw reason, and after much deliberation selected a mild-mannered Tajik, a chef from Kabul whom he had once helped with some immigration paperwork. He swore him to secrecy, and the Tajik made a room ready for Gulabuddin in his house in Norwood, southeast London. Bail was duly granted. I rode out to Stratford magistrates court to deliver a cheque, a trial date was set for December 2002, and Gulabuddin was released the same day.
The trial date gave the Afghans a goal to aim for, but there was no doubt that everything had begun to militate against the westward migration of Mir’s extended family. Gulabuddin’s wife and children could not come to Britain now, not with a crown case pending against him. It would be at least four months before normality resumed, even assuming that Gulabuddin was acquitted. The problem with this delay was spelled out by Anna Stein, an immigration lawyer who had previously helped the family. It was already two years since the last members of the family had left central Asia, and nothing particularly terrible had happened to the relatives left behind. The more time that went by, the harder it would be to argue their case for asylum to the authorities. The government was tightening its asylum conditions all the time. With the removal of the Taleban and the establishment of Hamid Karzai’s regime in Kabul, the home office had just cancelled its policy of automatically accepting asylum-seekers from Afghanistan – a policy that had lasted for more than 20 years.
The trial was slow to get under way once the day finally came. There were two false starts caused by the inadequacy of the Old Bailey’s pool of interpreters. The first one, a young Kabuli woman who had been brought up in Birmingham, was too embarrassed to deal with the seamy details of a rape case. Finding a substitute was made more difficult because the trial coincided with Eid al-Fitr (the feast of the breaking of the fast that marks the end of Ramadan), which meant that Afghans were unwilling to work. One who was prepared to do so spoke such poor English that he stumbled over the swearing-in oath and was dismissed on the spot. By the time the trial was over, six different interpreters had sat with Gulabuddin in the dock. Mir had hoped to keep the affair secret from London’s Afghan community, but that hope looked more forlorn with every personnel change.
The trial began at the end of 2002 and lasted for five days. Lionel David and I had been recruited as character witnesses, which meant that we were unable to watch the proceedings until after we had testified, but to begin with, things seemed to be going well. We learned that the testimony of the complainant, Maureen Rivers, had been so poor that the prosecution counsel was visibly disheartened.
Maureen Rivers naturally had her own version of what had happened that hot summer night, but after close examination of certain prosecution documents it looked full of discrepancies to me. She now maintained that she had diverted the taxi to her office not in order to go and surprise the night worker she fancied (which was what she had told the police operator who answered her 999 call), but because she was alarmed by Gulabuddin’s improper behaviour in the course of the journey. She claimed he had used the phrase “I’m going to give you some loving” – which was implausible, given Gulabuddin’s poor English – and that she had gone to the office to seek refuge. But if that was true, then surely she would have got out of the car at once upon reaching her destination. Instead, she sat in the car for more than an hour, chatting to the scarcely comprehending Gulabuddin and phoning the unrelenting man in the office on her mobile. Lenora, our defence barrister, had the phone company records that showed the exact time and duration of the calls. She called him six times in 45 minutes. Furthermore, the man in the office who had received those calls had testified that there had been no cry for help from Maureen, no sense that anything was wrong. She just wanted to see him, and he had told her to go home because she sounded drunk.
Gulabuddin’s description of her hair – the colour of dates – had led me to picture a slim, pretty secretary, but there was nothing particularly attractive about the real Maureen. Even Gulabuddin now struggled to explain why he had been tempted.
“I was just an animal,” he murmured, shaking his head with shame. At the end of the day of her testimony, Lionel and I took Gulabuddin and Mir out of the Old Bailey for a pep talk and debrief. As we crossed the road, a pressman ambushed us and began to take photographs. There had been a big press pack waiting by the entrance all week hoping for a shot of the defendant in a high-profile trial in another courtroom, but I had hoped they wouldn’t bother with us. I held a bag in front of Gulabuddin’s face, but the photographer skipped backwards down the street ahead of us, his camera twisting and turning, a ritual bizarrely familiar from television news.
“Can they really do that?” asked Mir once we were installed in the sanctuary of a nearby wine bar.
“I’m afraid they can in this country,” I said.
As Lionel brought them a Coke each I noticed that Gulabuddin’s hands were shaking uncontrollably. He hadn’t slept at all the previous night.
“He’s not looking well,” I commented to Mir.
“I know. He’s ashamed of this thing now,” he said.
“You will go easy on him, won’t you? He’s got to be on form tomorrow.”
“Don’t worry. He knows he is in big trouble. He knew from the moment he saw the size of this place,” Mir said, jerking his head towards the Old…