Bringing up baby on Death Row, by the regretful British mother who smuggled £3million of heroin over border in three bulging suitcases
- Khadijah Shah was arrested at Islamabad airport as she tried to check in for her flight to Birmingham
- She was carrying 145lb of pure Afghan heroin worth up to £2.8million
- Claimed she had ‘no idea’ that the suitcases contained heroin
- Said that she was asked to carry them by a friend
- Anti-narcotics force received a tip off that she would be carrying the drugs
- Her two other children, with her at the time, have been sent back to the UK
- Her newborn baby remains with her in prison
- Says: ‘I’m really worried about her. I breastfeed her, and she has put on some weight but she seems to be ill, and she cries so much’
In a bare, whitewashed courtroom in the Pakistani city of Rawalpindi, Khadijah Shah tenderly rocks her baby, Malaika. The only home the infant has known since her birth four weeks ago is a filthy, overcrowded prison cell.
‘There’s no cot in the jail,’ says Khadijah in a thick Midlands accent. ‘She has to share my bunk with me. I’m afraid I might squash her or push her out of bed in the night.
‘But she’s not sleeping much. She’s always getting bitten by mosquitoes and she’s had a lot of diarrhoea. She’s peaceful now, but at night she cries all the time. ‘Thankfully, the other girls in the cell don’t seem to mind.’
At 9.30am one day in May, Khadijah, 25, and her two older children Ibrahim, five, and Aleesha, four were arrested at Islamabad airport as they tried to check in for a flight to Birmingham.
Court documents seen by The Mail on Sunday say that inside their suitcases, hidden beneath layers of clothing, was a staggering quantity of 100 per cent pure Afghan heroin – 65kg (145lb). At current UK wholesale drug prices, the haul would be worth up to £2.8 million.
In Pakistan, the death penalty by hanging is virtually automatic for seizures of a kilo or more. Moreover, possession of drugs is a ‘strict liability’ crime, which means the prosecution doesn’t have to prove that the alleged courier ever knew they were there.
In July, almost three months after Khadijah and the children were first held together in Rawalpindi’s notorious Adiala prison, she was able to send the youngsters back to England with her mother.
Khadijah knows that if she is convicted, she may never see them again. Even if she is eventually found not guilty, under Pakistan’s snail-like legal system her trial is unlikely to take place for years.
‘My daughter cried when she left,’ Khadijah said. ‘I cried. She said she didn’t want to leave me, that she’d rather be in prison. It was awful, and I miss them so much. But I couldn’t have let them stay. There are no toys, no playground, nothing for them to do. They’d both been ill, and Ibrahim had lost so much weight he looked like a bag of bones.’
Like many alleged drug ‘mules’ before her, Khadijah said she had ‘no idea’ that the suitcases, which she was asked to take to England by a friend, contained heroin.
There is no way of proving whether she is telling the truth. What is clear is that either way, she was only a tiny segment of a much bigger conspiracy, which directly links Taliban killings of British troops in Afghanistan to the heroin bought by addicts on our streets.
‘To be capable of a 65kg shipment, the mafia which organised this would have to be a major network, also sending drugs to Africa, every country in Europe, and Dubai,’ said an international law enforcement analyst interviewed in Pakistan last week. The official was speaking on condition of anonymity.
‘In Afghanistan, a proportion of the money it raises will be benefiting the Taliban insurgency. It is also likely that the dealers here in Pakistan and the distributors in Britain are basically all in the same group.’ Pakistan, said the analyst, is now used to transit about 40 per cent of the world’s total heroin supply.
At Western wholesale prices, the country’s share is worth about £20 billion a year.
Of this, he added, the annual total successfully trafficked to Britain weighs about 20 tons, with a wholesale value of up to £1 billion.
Yet to date, Khadijah is the only person facing punishment from the airport seizure on May 6. ‘She is not a woman of means, she obviously didn’t buy the heroin herself,’ said her lawyer, Shahzad Akbar. However, no further arrests have been made in Pakistan or Britain.
At the end of May, Clive Stafford Smith, of the human rights charity Reprieve, which is working with Mr Akbar, volunteered to supply information Reprieve had uncovered about the broader drug conspiracy, information Khadijah did not know herself, to the Serious And Organised Crime Agency (SOCA), the UK body that investigates drug trafficking. Mr Stafford Smith said: ‘It took four and a half months for them to set up a meeting. They seemed to have little interest in catching the real criminals.’
Born to Pakistani parents in the Birmingham suburb of Small Heath, Khadijah left Sheldon Heath community school at 16 with no qualifications. ‘I just dropped out of my GCSE courses,’ she admitted.
She wasn’t, she said, ever formally assessed as having special educational needs. But according to Mr Stafford Smith, who has seen her with Mr Akbar, she has difficulty reading and writing.
‘She didn’t pay much attention at school,’ said Khadijah’s sister, Zaneb. ‘She did a computer course but she couldn’t get a job. She’s a very naive person. She’s a good mother, but she’s like a child herself.’
Khadijah was still just 17 when she moved in with her boyfriend Ahzar, the father of Ibrahim and Aleesha.
But when the children were still very young, Ahzar left her because his parents had arranged a marriage with someone they considered more suitable.
‘I was sad when he disappeared, but now we have very little contact,’ Khadijah said.
‘I’ve tried to get maintenance from him, but he’s unemployed, so he has no money, anyway.’
About a year ago, Khadijah began seeing Amar, the father of Malaika. At around the same time, she met a man who lived in Smethwick named Imran Khan (no relation to the famous cricketer). It was he who organised her trip to Pakistan. Khadijah said: ‘It was meant to be just a holiday.
I was staying with the kids in a guesthouse in Islamabad. On the last night a guy called Shakil turned up from Rawalpindi. He seemed like a decent guy, certainly not a criminal.
‘He had the suitcases and Imran asked me to take them to England. They said it was just clothes they wanted taking to Britain. Imran took my own luggage and said he’d bring it back with him later. I didn’t open the cases and I didn’t know what was in them.’
But someone was about to tip off Pakistan’s specialist drugs agency, the Anti-Narcotics Force (ANF). A report filed in court by ANF senior investigator, Syed Imtiaz, states: ‘On May 6, 2012 at about 8.00 I received information that British national woman Khadijah Shah will travel through flight PK-791 Islamabad to Birmingham with a huge quantity of heroin.’
He put together a team of officers and rushed to the airport. They quickly identified Khadijah, who was clutching three British passports and pushing a trolley with the suitcases into the departures hall. When the ANF men asked her to open the bags, they found 123 sealed and wrapped bags of heroin.
‘When they found the drugs, I was stunned,’ Khadijah said. ‘Imran had been using me. They took me into a small office where a lady officer questioned me. She said I wasn’t giving her enough information and she slapped me several times around the face in front of my kids. They were screaming, hysterical. Later my son asked me, “Mummy, have we been arrested?” ’
The law enforcement analyst said that recently, drug mafias operating out of Pakistan have increasingly been using women as couriers, especially those who are pregnant.
Last month, another British woman, Yasmeen Akhtar, now one of those sharing Khadijah’s cell, was also arrested at Islamabad airport, albeit with ‘only’ 7kg of drugs. In part, the analyst said, this is because the drug barons think female couriers will be less conspicuous. But there may be another reason: that they believe their networks will be safer if the courier is caught, because Pakistani police are reluctant to torture women.
Here confirmation came from a surprising source, Captain Ahzar Zubair, the Rawalpindi police chief, whose jurisdiction includes the whole of the Rawalpindi-Islamabad area. He said: ‘A woman will not be harshly interrogated. Usually she will be the only one punished.
‘It’s not easy to pick up everyone, and as soon as someone has been arrested, they will know. To catch the rest is a difficult job.’
By nightfall on May 6, Khadijah and the children were in Adiala, the Rawalpindi Central Jail, a vast, sprawling compound containing dozens of separate cell blocks. Above its main gate, painted an incongruous pink, is an Urdu inscription: ‘Hate the crime, not the criminal.’
At that time of year, temperatures in the shade regularly top more than 40C (104F). There was no air conditioning and very little room at the jail, said Khadijah.
‘In the cell there’s two double-decker bunks,’ she added. ‘Each one has one adult prisoner, but the kids had to share my bed with me. There’s very little room to walk around. There’s a toilet, but no privacy, we just use it in front of each other.’
The jail food, mainly bread and rice, is ‘horrible’, though she is able to supplement it by buying her own vegetables.
For the birth, Khadijah was taken to a nearby hospital, but three days later mother and daughter were back at Adiala. Describing the experience of nursing a newborn in prison, Khadijah’s eyes fill up with tears: ‘I’m really worried about her. I breastfeed her, and she has put on some weight, but she seems to be ill, and she cries so much.
‘She’s had no medical treatment, no vaccines. The only medicine they seem to have here is Ibuprofen [which, according to its manufacturers, should never be given to a baby of this age].’
Pakistani legal sources say there are several possibilities as to how the ANF received its tip-off. One is that corrupt officials, who had been paid to ensure the drug shipment went through, discovered that more heroin than had been agreed was in the suitcases, and so had Khadijah arrested because they had not been paid enough.
Another, said the international analyst, is that the gang deliberately set her up to provide a diversion, so that while the ANF was occupied with her, other, bigger shipments could be smuggled out.
Whatever the truth, it is evident that the present outcome could have been avoided.
For at least a decade, Britain has helped to train the ANF, and provided it with equipment worth millions of pounds. The ANF also works with MI6, and it sent a team to a four-day meeting at MI6’s London headquarters in January 2011.
The ANF’s annual report states that it has frequently shared ‘real time’ intelligence with its British partners. It has also arranged ‘controlled deliveries’ when instead of being stopped at Islamabad airport, couriers have been allowed to reach the UK, where they can be placed under surveillance.
In several cases, this has led to the successful prosecution of the British end of international drugs conspiracies. For some reason, when they got the tip-off about Khadijah, this was not arranged.
‘We have to assume they didn’t tell SOCA, so a controlled delivery was not carried out,’ said the analyst. ‘Maybe there was a lack of trust. Maybe they just wanted to get all the credit which, with a controlled delivery, would have been shared.’ Repeated requests for an interview with the ANF were declined.
A SOCA spokeswoman said: ‘SOCA’s response to an increase in seizures of heroin trafficked through Pakistan in 2011-12 has included improved intelligence exchange with Pakistan’s Anti-Narcotics Force. SOCA’s activity overseas is conducted in compliance with international humanitarian law and the principles of human rights.’