3 Pakistanis Innocent in Times Sq. Bomb Plot: Relatives

By ASIF SHAHZAD
|  Monday, May 24, 2010  |  Updated 7:45 AM EDT
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3 Pakistanis Innocent in Times Sq. Bomb Plot: Relatives

TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images

New York City Police Department Counter Terrorism Unit officers patrol in Times Square on May 5, 2010.

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Relatives of three Pakistanis detained for alleged links to the suspect in the attempted Times Square bombing protested the men's innocence Sunday, saying their fervent religious beliefs do not mean they are Islamic extremists.

The family members demanded the government either officially charge the men, who have been in custody for at least two weeks, or release them. Pakistan has a history of holding people for months, if not years, without charging them.

The trio are among at least six men who have been detained in Pakistan for alleged ties to Faisal Shahzad, a Pakistani-American arrested in the United States two days after the failed May 1 attack in New York. Like Shahzad, the detainees are all from their country's urban elite, including several who were educated in the United States.

But their relatives expressed concern that the men were being mistakenly targeted because they are devout Muslims who pray five times a day and fast during the holy month of Ramadan - a contrast to some Pakistani elites who live a more Westernized lifestyle.

"Saying prayer is his crime, fasting is his crime, being Muslim is his crime," said Saima Shahid, whose 32-year-old husband Shahid Hussain is alleged to have helped arrange money for the Times Square suspect.

Both men studied at the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut, but Shahid did not know if they were at the school at the same time. Hussain returned to Pakistan in 2004 and worked for the courier company DHL and the cell phone company Telenor, she said.

The uncle of another one of the suspects, Ahmad Raza, was equally adamant that his nephew's religious beliefs did not translate into extremism.

"He sports a beard. He is religious in the sense that he says his prayers and fasts," Afzal Inayat said about Raza. "That doesn't mean that he is an extremist."

Raza, who has an MBA from a private university in Islamabad, worked at an upscale catering company co-owned by the third suspect whose family spoke Sunday, Salman Ashraf.

Pakistani intelligence has said that two of the suspects wanted Ashraf to help bomb a foreign party his company was catering.

But Rana Ashraf Khan, Ashraf's father and co-owner of the catering company, said his son never displayed any signs of extremism. He was critical of U.S. policies in the region, but that is quite common in Pakistan, he said.

"He is a normal, business-minded person," he said about Ashraf, who studied hotel management in Florida and computer science in Houston before he returned to Pakistan in 2001.

The other three suspects detained in Pakistan include a former army major and his brother and the owner of a computer dealership in Islamabad, Shoaib Mughal, who is alleged to be a go-between for Shahzad and Pakistani Taliban in their hide-outs close the Afghan border.

Shahzad is accused of leaving an SUV rigged with a homemade car bomb in Times Square on May 1 that failed to explode. The 30-year-old son of a former air force officer was born in Pakistan and lived a privileged childhood before moving to the U.S. when he was 18.

Shahzad has claimed that he received financial support from the Pakistani Taliban for the Times Square attack, according to U.S. law enforcement officials close to the probe.

Two of the suspects detained in Pakistan, Mughal and Hussain, have admitted with pride that they helped Shahzad and don't believe they did anything wrong, said a Pakistani intelligence official who is part of the team questioning the men.

The other four suspects have also expressed their hatred for the West and the U.S., but have not admitted any links with Shahzad, the official said earlier.

Hussain's father, Mohammad Ramzan, insisted his son was innocent and demanded that the government officially press charges against his son if they have evidence of wrongdoing.

"It is just a shame, just a shame that our sons are being picked up right in our own country," said Ramzan, a 75-year-old retired bureaucrat. "I do not have any indication that my son had links with any (militant) group. If there is anything like that, please tell us his crime."

Rights activist and lawyer Zia Awan said law enforcement agencies in Pakistan are bound by law to present citizens before a court within 24 hours of detaining them to register their case.

With that in mind, Raza's uncle, Inayat, demanded the government obey the law.

"Provide us justice," he said. "Provide us fair play."

Hussain's 4-year-old daughter Aiza Shahid had a similar request.

"When will I see my father?" she asked after Sunday's news conference. "I do not know where he is."

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