One-time anthrax subjects glad to move on

Daily News Egypt
8 Min Read

NEW YORK: For a few long hours in 2001, things looked impossibly grim for Dr. Irshad Shaikh and his brother, Masood.

Not long after dawn on Nov. 13, armed FBI agents hunting for the perpetrator of a series of mailing filled with anthrax crashed through the door of his Pennsylvania home and spent the next 13 hours searching the place in moon suits. Another team raided the apartment of a colleague, a few blocks away.

Even as TV cameras broadcast the spectacle live, Shaikh, a Pakistani immigrant and respected public health official, assured friends and reporters that everything was OK.

Vindication finally came this week, when authorities declared that Dr Bruce Ivins, an Army biologist who killed himself last week, was responsible for the anthrax mailings that killed five and rattled America in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The proclamation was welcome but slow in coming for Shaikh and other individuals mistakenly singled out in the anthrax investigation, the most prominent example being scientist Steven A. Hatfill. The US government recently paid Hatfill $5.8 million to settle a lawsuit in which he claimed that the probe and related media coverage ruined his reputation.

Hatfill s story is the best known, but he wasn t the only person whose life was upended. Others were discarded almost immediately as suspects and forgotten by the public, but spent years on terrorist watch lists or trying to repair damaged reputations.

It s over. Thank God, Dr Shaikh said Thursday, speaking by telephone from Cairo, Egypt.

From the very start, he said, there was not even a thread of doubt in my mind that he and his brother were never really considered to be suspects – even after the government held up his citizenship application, put him on a no-fly list and summarily revoked his elderly mother s visa, which forced the family to leave its home in Chester, Pennsylvania.

If they thought we were involved in any way, they would have never left us alone. We would have wound up in Gitmo, or some place, he said, referring to the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

In the summer of 2004, FBI agents and postal inspectors donned hazardous materials suits and searched several homes linked to Dr Kenneth Berry, an emergency room physician living in western New York.

As in the case of the Shaikh brothers, investigators seemed to lose interest in Berry quickly, but not until they had searched his car, his home in Wellsville, New York, and his parents vacation house on the New Jersey shore.

The probe, however brief, may have taken a heavy toll.

Berry lost his job at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. He got into a physical altercation with his wife on the day of one of the FBI raids, which led to an assault charge. His marriage broke up.

Attempts to contact Berry this week through his former lawyers and workplace were unsuccessful, but one friend said that the doctor has gotten back on track in recent years.

Since things quieted down, he s put his life back together again and he s in a stable environment right now, said the Rev. Richard Helms, of Wellsville. He said Berry had moved to the New York City area, remarried and taken a job at a hospital in Queens. As far as I know, he just wants his name cleared as publicly as it was smeared.

In another example, four South Asian immigrants were arrested in Connecticut in 2001 after a tipster told an FBI agent that he overheard Arab men talking about bringing letters to New York, where some of the anthrax-laced letters ended up.

Investigators quickly concluded that the lead was bogus. The tipster later pleaded guilty to charges of making false statements.

But that didn t clear up problems for the four arrested men, who spent two weeks or more in jail while authorities sorted the case out, then ran into immigration trouble.

One was deported to Pakistan. A second, Ayazuddin Sheerazi, spent 18 days in jail and then left for India after the government refused to extend his visitor s visa.

It was part of the 9/11 hysteria, said his attorney, Neil A. Weinrib. He became an unwitting victim.

The Shaikh brothers had a mixed experience after the raid on their Chester home. The brothers returned to their jobs the next morning. Irshad Shaikh was Chester s health commissioner. Masood worked with him in the health department. The house of another Pakistani immigrant, Asif Kazi, was also search the same day. He too went to his job, as a city accountant.

All three were supported from the beginning by the city s mayor, Dominic F. Pileggi, now an influential state senator, and by colleagues who said they were innocent.Within six months, Irshad Shaikh was working for the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Afghanistan, where he conducted a survey on war wounds due to land mines and unexploded ordnance. He followed that up with a similar assignment in northern Iraq.

Still, lingering concerns from the probe blocked Irshad from getting some government contracts. Masood was denied an extension of his work visa and had to leave the United States. The pair s mother had her US travel visa canceled, and was barred entry when she tried to return with Irshad from a trip to Iraq.

Irshad himself was repeatedly detained at airports and interrogated, sometimes for many hours, and was stopped from flying occasionally because his name appeared on a terror watch list. He now works for the World Health Organization, where he is a Cairo-based medical officer for emergency response and operations for the eastern Mediterranean.

His citizenship application was finally approved earlier this year. He became a citizen during a ceremony in Philadelphia in April, and hopes to someday return to Pennsylvania.

Chester is home. We d like to come back, he said.

As for his experience with the FBI, he said, I m not bitter about it at all, and said the episode had actually renewed his faith in the American justice system.

If they had just wanted to pin this on someone, we were the ideal target, and they didn t do that, he said. So hats off to them. ___Associated Press Writer Ben Dobbin in Rochester, New York, contributed to this report.

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