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Bangladeshis battle a deportation

The community fears a St. Petersburg man's life would be in danger if he returns to his nation.

By BY WAVENEY ANN MOORE
Published May 27, 2007


ST. PETERSBURG - The feared knock at the door came on Mother's Day. It was a summons that would disrupt the lives of Mohhamed Golam Sarowar Khan, his wife and young child and galvanize a close-knit immigrant community across the state.

Khan, 38, who is from Bangladesh, was picked up at his St. Petersburg apartment for being in the United States illegally. In the days since his May 13 arrest, members of Florida's Bangladeshi community have pledged money and hired a lawyer to try to save him from deportation.

They insist that his is a clear case for political asylum and say he'll be jailed or killed if he is made to return to Bangladesh. But Shayne Epstein, the lawyer they've hired, says that Khan - who was denied asylum several years ago - may have already had his day in court.

"For us to try to put the brakes on this train is going to be very, very difficult, " Epstein said from his office in Pompano Beach.

About 35 Bangladeshi families gathered at a St. Petersburg home last week to offer support to Khan, who is being held in the Broward Transition Center in Pompano Beach.

As giant pots of curried beef, fish and freshly slaughtered goat simmered on a back porch, Khan's wife, Israt Jahan Rikta, sat teary-eyed inside the two-story house in one of the city's southern neighborhoods. Enveloping their small daughter in her arms, she told her story hesitantly and emotionally in English and Bengali. She repeatedly used the edge of her colorful, flowing garment to wipe away her tears.

"The last three, four days, she has been continuously crying, " said Shakawat Hossain, who hosted the gathering.

Rikta, 36, who married Khan in Houston in 2003, said two immigration officers showed up at their home about 10 a.m. on Mother's Day. The officers asked for her husband's passport, Rikta said, but in her distress, she turned over hers as well. Now, Rikta - also here illegally - says she can't visit her husband because she's afraid she'll also be detained.

"My understanding is that they decided not to detain her on Mother's Day because of the child, otherwise they would have a parentless U.S. minor, " Epstein said.

The separation has been difficult for her daughter, Rikta said, adding that she told 3-year-old Lamyea Sarowar Celine that her father is in a hospital.

"She says, 'I have to go the hospital for Daddy, ' " Rikta said of the child, who at times clung to her mother or kissed a photograph of her father.

Khan arrived in the United States in 1999 on a visitor's visa. While living in Texas, he applied for political asylum, but the petition was denied. His appeal was denied in 2004. That year, he and his wife moved to St. Petersburg, where he drove a taxi and worked in convenience stores. He has no criminal record.

Epstein says he'll ask for a stay of deportation and file a motion to reopen the case. That is, if he gets new evidence that Khan would be in danger if he is returned home.

"I really don't know if there is anything new there, " Epstein said.

Leaders in the Bangladeshi community say Khan has a solid case. They say that Khan, who had been an organizer for the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, was stabbed and a finger on his left hand was chopped off because of his party affiliation.

"If he goes back to Bangladesh, he has a lot of evidence that he might be killed, " said Mohammed Emran, president of the Bangladesh Association of Florida, which has 17, 000 to 20, 000 members.

"We would like to make a petition to the governor for mercy, " said Hossain, who hosts regular weekend gatherings with food and games of cricket for Bangladeshi families at his St. Petersburg home.

Deepa Ollapally, a professor in the Sigur Center for Asian Studies at George Washington University, said the party Khan belonged to got into power in 2001 and ruled until a few months ago.

A caretaker government is in charge until elections can be held, Ollapally said.

"Right now, there is a huge campaign on corruption. Of course, there's no doubt that a lot of political scores are being settled in this context, " she said.

"Without knowing the details of his particular claim, the fact that the government he fled at the time is no longer in power does not mean he is safe to return, " said Fred Abrahams, the senior researcher for Human Rights Watch.

Harry E. Vanden, a professor of political science and international studies at the University of South Florida, said anyone seeking asylum must belong to a designated group, such as a political party, religion or race. "It can even be sexual orientation, " he said.

Petitioners, he said, must show that they have been harmed or would be further hurt if they're made to return to their countries.

Epstein, the lawyer, said Khan's original case was probably jeopardized by an ineffective application.

"There are these places that are like asylum mills for thousands of cases like this. Some are frivolous, and some are legitimate, " he said.

Khan's detention comes at a time when the United States appears poised for immigration reform that could grant amnesty to as many as 12-million people who are in the country illegally.

"The ironic thing is that if this immigration bill passes, " Epstein said, "he could be potentially covered by it."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at (727) 892-2283 or moore@sptimes.com.