October 6, 2013 12:37:25 AM
NEW YORK -- On the day two of his relatives were gunned down in a street in Pakistan last year, cab driver Mohammad Ajmal Choudhry was thousands of miles away in New York City.
That made it all the more shocking to friends when federal agents moved in later that same day and arrested the 60-year-old immigrant who was known for his gentle manner and devotion to his children and grandchildren.
An indictment filed late last month charges Choudhry with murder conspiracy in a case U.S. prosecutors in Brooklyn say exposed a bitter family feud over his daughter's flight from an arranged marriage. The animosity, authorities say, ended in the equivalent of so-called honor killings -- the ruthless vigilantism against Pakistani women accused of disgracing their families.
Prosecutors cite a series of vengeful phone calls with the 23-year-old daughter -- captured on tape around the time of the deaths -- as evidence of Choudhry's bloodlust. But the defense says that's not enough to pin a murder rap on him.
"I haven't seen any direct or credible evidence that connects my client to these killings," attorney Joshua Dratel said shortly after Choudhry pleaded not guilty through a Punjabi interpreter.
Supporters both in New York and Gujrat -- a city in Punjab Province where he still has strong ties after living in the United States for more than two decades -- have written letters to the U.S. court vouching for his character.
A local politician in Pakistan wrote that Chandhry's family "always stood for the rights of women in our society" and that he had a reputation as a "liberal, gentle, honest and moderate Muslim."
The oldest of his four daughters wrote, "He never forced or imposed his will on me my whole life." She said the allegations left her "totally surprised and numb" and belittled the accusing sister, Amina Ajmal, as a "habitually childish and wet blanket girl."
The defense also submitted photos it says show Ajmal smiling on her wedding day, arguing they were proof that there was no coercion.
But the picture painted by Ajmal when she spoke to U.S. authorities in New York in February was far from happily ever after.
Ajmal, a U.S. citizen, claimed that her ordeal began about three years before the slayings. She told investigators that "under threat of death" she was ordered to wed a Pakistani man in a scheme to get him a U.S. visa.
She was held against her will in Pakistan until the couple finally married there late last year, she said. In January, a cousin intervened and helped her escape and come to the United States, she said. She remained in phone contact with her father but refused to reveal her whereabouts.
Recordings made with the daughter's consent contain repeated threats against the cousin and his family, U.S. authorities say.
"If you come back, I will spare them. ... If you don't, then it's death and death," Choudhry warned in one.
In another call in late February, Ajmal begged her father to "please stop whatever you are doing, back in Pakistan."
"I will not end this until I find you," he responded. "I swear to God, no harm will be done to you, if you come back home. ... Otherwise, I will catch each and every person of their family and will kill them."
A few days later, an armed assailant shot and killed the cousin's father and sister on a street in Gujrat. An eyewitness told Pakistani police afterward that he spotted Choudhry's brother "standing over the victims, holding a gun, and desecrating the bodies," U.S. prosecutors say in court papers.
The defense has claimed there's evidence in Pakistan that the dead father owed money from failed business ventures and had been confronted by gunmen in the past. They also insisted that the accounts of the shooting are conflicting and inconclusive.
Pakistani authorities rounded up several potential suspects but released all of them pending the outcome of their own investigation, U.S. authorities said. Still fearing for their lives, the cousin and other relatives have left the region.
U.S. authorities declined to discuss Ajmal's whereabouts. There was no response to a message left with her attorney.
The father and daughter haven't spoken since she confronted him the day the relatives were killed.
"Have you done this?" she asked.
He claimed that another person "killed this time and made me part of it." But he also repeated the threat that he would "not leave a single member of their family alive" if she didn't return home.
News of the killings had made him "a man of no honor," he lamented. "My daughters are whores. ... You still have time. Think about it in the next 24 hours."
"What will you do after 24 hours?"
"What else? Another person will be gone."
Shortly after the call ended, federal agents arrived at Choudhry's home and led him away in handcuffs.