Anti-corruption hunger striker deported

  • 2002-03-07
  • Geoffrey Vasiliauskas
VILNIUS - On Valentine's Day, Feb. 14, Lithuanian migration officials told Pakistani citizen Ashique Hussain Hamdani, who was being detained at the country's Foreigners Registration Center, they would allow him to see his Lithuanian wife and daughter. He was 11 days into a hunger strike.

Instead, officials drove Hamdani to Vilnius Airport and put him on a plane to Pakistan.

The hunger strike was to compel the Lithuanian authorities to investigate alleged corruption, respect the rights of refugees, and allow him to live in peace with his wife and 4-year-old daughter Gabriele.

In an e-mail Hamdani sent on Feb. 19 to 23 former and current Lithuanian MPs and the Baltic News Service in Vilnius, he described how he wasn't even allowed to say good-bye to his family.

Hamdani now plans to take his hunger strike to Strasbourg from April 8-26, when the Council of Europe is set to convene, and then to Geneva where the 61st session of the United Nations Human Rights Conference is scheduled for July and August.

He has never had a problem getting a visa to a country in the European Union, he said, and doesn't anticipate a problem now.

Robertas Petraitis, director of the Foreigners Registration Center, said Lithuania's migration department had decided to send Hamdani back to Pakistan after a court found him guilty of wrong-doing.

Hamdani and his wife tell a different story. Hamdani, they claim, had tried to help three Pakistani citizens extend their visas as they surveyed a Lithuanian free economic zone project several years ago. Hamdani lost the three men's passports in a cab, then received a mysterious phone call.

"Ashique was told he could get the passports back with everything in order, with visas, if he paid a certain sum," Hamdani's wife Ausra recounted. "That was his one mistake. He agreed. When he met the people and pulled out the money, the cameras started rolling."

In 2001 the First Vilnius Municipal Court sentenced Hamdani to prison for attempting to bribe a Foreigners Registration Center official. But applying provisions for amnesty and credit for pretrial time served, the court released him.

Sources familiar with the case said Hamdani was offered a deal by prosecutors. But he declined, deciding instead to stand on principle. Hamdani and his wife - who have only spoken by telephone for several minutes since he was deported - both offered the same story, that he was offered a deal to avoid prosecution but declined, deciding important issues were at stake.

Hamdani, a journalist and human rights activist, was demanding a review of the criminal case against him when he was sent to Pakistan. He insists he is not guilty, and that he was set up by Lithuanian officials involved in the case.

The officials have denied Hamdani's allegations.

List of demands

During his hunger strike Hamdani made about 50 demands, including that an international commission be formed to investigate the Forum for Refugees and Asylum Seekers, a now-defunct advocacy organization in Vilnius he helped to initiate in the mid-90s.

He charged that the group was involved in corrupt activities extending inside Lithuanian law enforcement and political structures.

Hamdani arrived in Lithuania in 1996. He helped found FRAS with several migration officials and MPs. A criminal investigation began into the fund after allegations that it was a front for human traffickers engaged in bringing illegal immigrants to Lithuania. It was Hamdani himself who made the allegations.

Specifically, Hamdani said he had learned that one FRAS co-founder, working together with an Afghan citizen technically acting as a translator, was involved in human trafficking. The activity was allegedly very profitable for the two men involved.

Hamdani said he decided to report the operation to the Lithuanian authorities. He went to Lithuania's state security department, then headed by Jurgis Jurgelis, in 1997.

Ausra Hamdani said he was driven out of FRAS following a court decision. Her husband had naively registered the bills for the advocacy organization's utilities in his own name, and it refused to pay the heating and electricity charges that had piled up.

Instead, they took Hamdani to court and sued him for the amount in question. The Lithuanian court found in their favor, and Hamdani was legally removed as a member of the non-profit body.

"After that, they moved into a much fancier building in the Old Town," she said.

"Both myself and my family have been the victims of a hate campaign by Lithuanian officials," Hamdani said. "But no evil can ever destroy true love," he added, saying he has always been loyal to Lithuania and the country's national aspirations and interests.

Deportation order

Lithuania's migration department issued a decision to deport Hamdani, now 35, in 1999. In December 2001 he was arrested and held at the Foreigners Registration Center, located in Pabrade, a small town northeast of Vilnius.

Petraitis claimed that hunger strikes are par for the course at the center. "Residents often threaten hunger strikes in an effort to remain in Lithuania," he said.

Ausra Hamdani tells of a bureaucratic nightmare and her husband being beaten by police. She said four large male officers came to their daughter's preschool during a Christmas pageant she and her husband were attending and took him away in front of children and parents.

Only later did she learn they beat him up severely, allegedly for resisting arrest. "My husband is a peaceful man. When he gets angry the most he is capable of is slamming a door," she recounted in the family's Vilnius apartment adjacent to her daughter's preschool.

Hamdani insists he didn't resist arrest, and that one officer from the local precinct made it his duty to inflict bodily injury on him.

His wife admitted they used to spend many nights with friends to avoid the police after the Lithuanian migration department ordered Hamdani deported. She said police regularly came by the apartment at all hours and forced their way in.

"Once I asked to see their permission to perform a search. The two male officers gestured violently and said they would show me what kind of permission they had," Ausra remembered. "They didn't let up at all. Once we were away, and I came home and found my doorbell had short-circuited. They had rung it so long it burned up."

Hamdani said all he wanted was to stay in Lithuania with his wife and daughter. Ausra is an ethnic Lithuanian. Their daughter Gabriele Hamdani was born in 1997. Ausra said they had planned to teach their daughter Urdu, the main language in Pakistan, and raise their daughter in a secular environment. They wanted her to grow up with European values.

Gabriele said in accentless Lithuanian she missed her dad.

"Gabriele was the main obstacle for them. The migration department went to court to have our marriage annulled legally. They said it was fictitious. But our daughter is not fictitious. They can't explain her away, or pretend she doesn't exist," Ausra Hamdani said, adding that an expired visa was the basis for trying to annul their wedding.

Gabriele was mostly quiet throughout the interview, but when asked, she said the kids at her preschool were all friendly to her.

"I tried going to the local press," Ausra continued despairingly, "but they just wrote negative things about us."

Dark-haired Gabriele took her necklace, a paper cut-out figure of an owl she had colored with felt-tip markers, and showed it off proudly.

Ausra has not yet made up her mind whether she will join her husband in Pakistan or not. Lithuania is her home.

For now she is just looking forward to the next round in the fight and continues to hope it will all be over soon.