Police arrested Kamran Akhtar, a Pakistani national accused of living in the U.S. illegally, on July 20 while videotaping skyscrapers in Charlotte, N.C. Today, Akhtar remains in Mecklenburg County Jail in Charlotte waiting to see if he will be convicted of violating immigration laws and imprisoned or deported. Meanwhile, the case has raised concerns among Charlotte’s Islamic population that Akhtar may be the object of racial profiling and selective enforcement of immigration laws.
Akhtar’s arrest and indictment were highly publicized. National media outlets ran stories linking Akhtar’s videotapes to recent concerns voiced by the Bush administration about Pakistani terrorists possibly attacking U.S. financial institutions. But in the end, Akhtar was found to have no links to terrorist organizations, and the charges against him boil down to immigration violations and misleading officials.
"I know we are living in tense times and the politicians can’t be politically correct about everything that comes out of their mouths," said Jibril Hough, the chairman of the Charlotte-based Islamic Political Party of America. "But I thought they could have dealt with the Kamran Akhtar situation a lot better."
Akhtar has been charged on six counts. Four relate to allegedly making false statements to police officers and two are for alleged immigration violations. Akhtar’s lawyer, George N. Miller of the Charlotte law firm of Dozier, Miller, Pollard and Murphy, said his client is currently facing a maximum of 35 years in prison.
According to Charlotte press reports, Akhtar caught the attention of a Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer, Danny Maglione, who noticed Akhtar standing on the corner of Stonewall and South Tryon streets acting in a manner he thought to be suspicious.
"When I slowed down, he [Akhtar] would turn quickly and not try to make eye contact with me," Maglione told News 14 Carolina, a Charlotte TV station. The officer told the media that he had seen at least a dozen people videotaping buildings in uptown Charlotte. Akhtar was suspicious, Maglione explained, because "normal people don’t just take pictures of buildings, see a police officer and turn away quickly."
Akhtar went voluntarily to a local FBI office where federal agents looked at the videotapes and, according to the police and the local media, found footage of the Bank of America building, the Texas governor’s mansion and the public transit systems in Atlanta, Houston, Dallas and New Orleans.
Keith Bridges, a spokesperson for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department told the media, "Hopefully we’ve headed something off here."
But according to Miller, his client, age 35 and a resident of Elmhurst, N.Y., is a video buff who enjoyed taking photos of tourist sites and buildings as well as family gatherings and his children. Until his arrest, he had been traveling the country after he lost his job at a New York photo shop that closed.
FBI special agent Ellen Knowlton told a press conference that the tapes were "similar to what someone might bring home from a vacation."
Hough, the Islamic Political Party of America chairman, said he believes Akhtar is the victim of racial profiling and selective enforcement of immigration laws. He said there were many undocumented immigrants in the area, but the government targeted Akhtar.
Miller added that Akhtar’s case is a striking example of how the Patriot Act is being used today. "Mr. Akhtar was detained for two weeks without being charged criminally," Miller explained. "There was a time you couldn’t do that in the U.S. That changed when the Bush administration jammed the PATRIOT Act legislation through Congress."
After his arrest, the FBI ran checks on Akhtar, finding no ties to terrorist groups, according to his lawyer. The government is not charging him with any terrorism-related crimes and Miller says he does not expect such charges to be added.
Soon after his arrest, Kamran’s brother, Irfan Akhtar, a doctor living legally in the U.S., told the press that his brother was innocent. Irfan said Kamran has three children, ages one to five, and that his brother’s wife is a permanent U.S. resident working to become a U.S. citizen.
Prosecutors brought immigration violation charges against Akhtar after the FBI conducted a background check, Miller said. Miller says the government claims that his client held passports in two different names his own and another in the name of Kamran Shaikh, which Miller called Akhtar’s "family or tribal" name. Miller said that he himself has never seen either of the passports.
The authorities allege that Akhtar, using the name of Kamran Shaikh, filed an application in New York for political asylum. Miller explained: "They believe Akhtar went to a hearing on Long Island in 1998, where he was denied political asylum." The government says Akhtar entered into an agreement with the immigration judge to voluntarily leave the U.S., but that he allegedly remained in the country illegally after the voluntary departure date. "That’s a felony offense," Miller said.
Miller would not comment on why Akhtar might have applied for asylum, nor would he confirm that he had in fact done so.
Meanwhile, the local Islamic community has been critical of right-wing talk show hosts and other members of the media who they said were quick to indict and convict Akhtar solely on the basis of his national origin.
To clear the air, the Islamic Party of America sponsored a community meeting at a local mosque, which was attended by Mayor McCrory and the Charlotte Mecklenburg police chief, Darrel Stephens. Participants stressed that local residents should not rush to judgment about Akhtar’s guilt or innocence.
"The media jumped to some conclusions," Malik Rahman, a member of the Charlotte Islamic community, told the crowd. "They declared him guilty before law enforcement had a chance to investigate."
The trial date is set for Nov. 1, but given the publicity surrounding the case, Miller does not believe his client could get a fair trial anywhere. "The story was splashed all over the media and the press labeled him a terrorist," Miller said. "I don’t know if we can get a fair jury." He concedes the case will be a tough one to win, and he said the government has offered Akhtar a plea agreement, which he has yet to review. "I don’t expect my client to go to jail on a terrorism conviction, but the immigration charges he faces are going to make it difficult for him to stay in the country," Miller conceded.