Plagued by old resentments, accusations of infidelity and violent squabbles that end in the diplomatic equivalent of plate-smashing, Pakistan and the US have long been compared to a crisis-stricken married couple. It is a forced marriage, officials like to say, or an unhappy Catholic one: terrible rows with no prospect of divorce. But what if it were an actual marriage?
On May 12 2011 Matthew Barrett, a 27-year-old American from Huntsville, Alabama, bumped down a quiet country road about 20 miles west of Islamabad in his custom-built Land Rover Defender. He halted before a large sign that read: “No foreigners beyond this point.” Beyond lay Fateh Jang, one of the most sensitive places in Pakistan. Once part of the country’s secretive nuclear weapons complex, Fateh Jang is today home to an advanced military research facility that produces long-range missiles and depleted uranium tank ammunition. The district is not, generally speaking, frequented by foreigners, much less Americans, and particularly 10 days after the Navy Seal raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, 50 miles to the north-west.
Stopped before the forbidding sign, Barrett realised he had a problem. He phoned his wife, Binosche, for help. They had met four years earlier, during Barrett’s travels across Asia; now they lived in a smart Islamabad suburb with their two young children. Speaking in Urdu, Binosche asked a guard at a nearby checkpost to direct her husband back to Islamabad. “He said ‘don’t worry, your husband is our guest’,” she recalls. But according to Barrett, in an account smuggled from prison and obtained by the Guardian, the situation quickly soured.
An intelligence official turned up, firing a barrage of questions. The official confiscated Barrett’s passport, then his phone and finally the keys to his car. Barrett was taken into a nearby building where, he says, intelligence officers accused him of being a CIA spy, made “racist comments” about Guantánamo Bay, and attempted to cuff him and place a black hood over his head. Barrett resisted, kicking one man in the behind and mocking his captors as they beat him.
Barrett was released after five hours, hobbling back to Islamabad in a damaged car (the Pakistanis had ripped open the driver’s door, apparently in search of espionage devices). Then the real trouble started. Stories surfaced in the press, attributed to the military’s powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) spy agency, accusing him of “scoping out nuclear facilities”. The interior ministry cancelled his visa and declared he had been blacklisted. Finally, in early June, nine police officers burst into Barrett’s home, pushed past his wife and screaming children, and led him off to jail.
Since then Barrett has been imprisoned at Rawalpindi’s notorious Adiala jail, held with men accused of blaspheming against the prophet Muhammad, forbidden visitors and refused the most basic privileges. His wife has not even been allowed deliver food parcels, a common practice in Pakistani prisons. US officials, meanwhile, say Barrett faces imminent deportation.
Yet little has been resolved. Is the young American really a CIA operative, part of a covert team such as the one that tracked Bin Laden, or others that are trying to inventory Pakistan’s nuclear stockpile? Or is he simply a young romantic who fell in love with the right woman from the wrong country, an unwitting victim of the geopolitical spy wars between two countries who cannot bear to be friends nor enemies?
That is certainly Barrett’s version. In a letter smuggled from prison, he says, “I am a traveler that [sic] happened to fall in love.” After a recent court appearance, he made an impassioned appeal to the press. Sitting in the back of a police van, his hands shackled and a baseball cap turned backwards on his head, the young man – trim build; goatee beard; bright flashing eyes – called out to the cameras. “I’ve been living here three-and-a half years. Now, all of a sudden, Pakistan and America have some problems,” he says. “So they’re taking it out on me.”
Barrett had landed in Pakistan four years earlier, a restless 23-year-old with a tragic past. His parents had died when he was a child, killed in a car crash that the five-year-old survived. Raised by his grandparents in Huntsville, a prosperous southern city, he grew into a non-conformist, stubborn teenager. After high school he spurned college in favour of seeing the world – in particular countries where “Americans aren’t supposed to go”, says childhood friend Elliott Williams. “Matt was one of those people who didn’t like to be told where to go and what was safe. He wanted to prove them wrong.”
Financed by an inheritance, he meandered through Europe and Asia, hooking up with other backpackers in hostels or finding friends through couch-surfing websites. In June 2007, having crossed over 50 countries, he wound up in central Islamabad, standing outside the Red Mosque with two companions. Binosche Khan, a 20-year-old Pakistan aid worker with Médecins Sans Frontières, spotted them and told her father to stop. “I was worried; they were in the wrong place,” she says. She was right: weeks later, bubbling tensions between the government and extremists holed up inside the mosque would explode into a bloody siege that ended with the deaths of 100 people.
Binosche’s father, a human rights lawyer named Abdur Rehman, directed the backpackers to a cheap hotel. But before leaving Barrett managed to get his daughter’s phone number.They met several times for lunch, discreetly, before Barrett continued his travels into the Himalayas. He emailed friends to say had fallen in love. “He said he met this woman with a wonderful face,” recalls Aly Vellani, a Canadian who had travelled through Europe with Barrett earlier that year. Six months later, Barrett returned to Pakistan; two weeks after that they were married.
It was a low-key ceremony. The couple made their vows before a cleric in a city apartment, they wore ordinary clothes with a few of Binosche’s siblings in attendance; security guards recruited off the street served as witnesses. Despite unconventional beginnings, they quickly settled down. A child, Michael, arrived after 10 months, followed by a girl, Rose, last September. Barrett stayed home to look after the children while Binosche worked at the Finnish embassy.
Back in Alabama, Barrett’s elderly grandparents worried for his safety. Barrett, on a short trip home, assured them all was well. “He was real quick to tell everyone that Pakistan wasn’t the horrible place they thought it was,” says Williams, his friend.In truth, it was more complicated. Police visited his house, demanding copies of his passport and visa. In a country rife with anti-American hostility, Barrett struggled to make friends. He brought suspicion on himself when, on a trip to Khyber tribal agency to buy vehicle spare parts, he was detained by Peshawar police and held for three days. (Finding nothing suspicious, they released him.) Binosche was reported to military intelligence by someone at the Finnish embassy who said she had Israeli sympathies. “Married to an American in Pakistan, you have to put up with a lot of crap,” she sighs.
There was also trouble from the US authorities. The Barretts ran into a thicket of red tape at the Islamabad embassy, with long delays for visas (it took Binosche more than two years) and passports for their children. Barrett grew angry. After one heated exchange, an embassy official challenged him to a fistfight, Binosche says. On another they were left sitting for more than an hour in a room with pictures of al-Qaida fugitives. The couple believed the room was bugged.
Meanwhile, in Alabama, Barrett’s friends and family also faced scrutiny. FBI agents arrived on their doorsteps with questions about his life in Pakistan; a high-school friend was shocked to face queries during a security check for a government job. Some of the FBI’s questions focused on Barrett’s relationship with Islam (he had to convert to marry Binosche). “It really caught us off guard but there were no direct questions about anything bad,” Williams says. “They were just fishing for what kind of guy he was.”
Amid the delays and frustrations, early this year Barrett concocted a fresh plan to leave Pakistan. He bought a secondhand Land Rover for £1,500, intending to drive thousands of miles through western Pakistan, Iran, and Turkey. It was an ambitious, some say foolhardy, plan – kidnap is common in western Pakistan – but he pressed ahead, hiring Pakistani metalworkers to construct a caravan to house his young family on the journey. But the jeep needed work, so he made several journeys to a workshop in Swabi, north of Islamabad, for repairs. But on 10 May, with the work almost done, he did something unusual. Instead of taking the motorway he turned on to the old Grand Trunk Road and, instead of heading north to Swabi, turned west towards Fateh Jang. Moments later he hit the “No foreigners” sign.
Barrett’s timing couldn’t have been worse. US-Pakistan relations, always fragile, plunged last January after a CIA contractor called Raymond Davis shot dead two people in Lahore. The death of Bin Laden – and subsequent revelations of an extensive CIA surveillance operation leading to his capture – triggered an unprecedented crisis. Humiliated, angered and facing allegations of collusion with Bin Laden, the ISI has mounted an intensive sweep to flush out the CIA’s covert operatives inside Pakistan. US officials have been refused visas; US citizens inside Pakistan have come under intense scrutiny. Some have been harassed and detained, others deported, the State Department complained recently. Two weeks ago kidnappers snatched Warren Weinstein, a veteran US contractor, from his Lahore home; his fate remains unknown.
In Adiala jail, Barrett said in the smuggled letter, he has been beaten and suffered a broken tooth. Yet his own embassy appears indifferent to his plight. “They have been rude to my wife, even complaining about how hard it was to get permission to see me,” he wrote. One official told Binosche that “we have enough difficulty keeping our own people out of trouble”.In court, Barrett has been charged with entering a restricted area in Fateh Jang and, under an arcane law, “insulting the good name of Pakistan”. The media, quoting ISI sources, trots out allegations of espionage. To those who know Barrett, they are risible. “Ludicrous,” says Vellani, the former fellow backpacker. “There’s no way in the world Matt could be a spy,” says Williams.
Binosche is fighting hard to save her husband from deportation. She has lodged an appeal with the country’s supreme court, but so far it has shown little interest. She is supported by her father Abdur Rehman, a fiery human rights lawyer who has embraced his son-in-law. Having survived the 2005 earthquake when a house collapsed on his head, he is not a man to mince his words. Over an iftar dinner to mark the breaking of the Ramadan fast, he rails against Pakistan’s military establishment, which he calls a “fascist, feudal, Nazi network”. If his son-in-law comes to harm in prison, he warns, he will take tribal-style revenge. “I am a Pakhtun. I cannot be afraid,” he declares.
His daughter is less certain. She rages courageously against the hidden spies she believes to be behind her husband’s persecution. “Somebody has to stand up to these people,” she says. Other times, however, she crumbles – unable to sleep, beset with anxiety, writing poems to her husband. “The idea Matt is some sort of James Bond is ridiculous,” she says. “He’s the kind of person who speaks for people’s rights. Not this.”
At her parents’ house, she leads me outside. The black Land Rover is still there, parked in front of a cricket pitch. The LCD screens fitted to entertain their children have been damaged, the door barely closes. Behind it stands the caravan – painted black, with two small windows, resembling a mobile library. Inside, it is unbearably hot and cramped, with bare metal seats, a basic sink and a musty smell brought on by rain leaking through the roof.Nobody is certain when this ill-fated vehicle will get moving again, or in which direction – much like the bigger, troubled relationship between the two countries. – guardian