The Afghan Connection The fate of thousands in the Middle East rests in the hands of one Fremont businessman. Unfortunately, his fate rests in the hands of the federal government.

• • • •
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On June 24, 2002, a man walked into Global Imports Sales in Fremont's Little Kabul district to sell some jewelry. He was no ordinary customer. Unbeknownst to the proprietor, he was an undercover government informant, wired for sound and looking to bust an international heroin-smuggling ring. He carried $50,000 worth of jewelry -- proceeds from the smack trade. The drugs had originated in Pakistan, been traded for jewelry by the ring's operatives in Thailand, and continued on for distribution in the United States, Thailand, and the United Kingdom. The informant's job was to unload the baubles for cash, then transfer the money back to the dope suppliers.

The target of the sting -- which was headed jointly by the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration, and the US Attorney's Office -- was Qader Qudus ("coo-dis"), a 45-year-old businessman who'd immigrated to Fremont from his native Afghanistan more than twenty years ago.

Qudus is the East Bay's Afghan connection. Prior to his arrest, he ran a side business that was, for all practical purposes, the sole monetary lifeline between thousands of local Afghan and Pakistani residents and their desperately poor friends and relatives back home. Now, based on evidence that appears tenuous, the businessman sits in a Maryland federal prison awaiting arraignment on charges related to money laundering and heroin trafficking. And whether he's guilty or innocent, the ramifications of his case extend far beyond his own family.

ZSQ Exchange, which Qudus named by combining the initials of his wife and two young sons, is a hawala, or traditional Middle Eastern money exchange. The physical business consists of little -- a few comfortable chairs, a glass-topped counter, and some computers located at the back of his jewelry shop -- but the service it provided was of the utmost importance to the people of Little Kabul and countless others around the Bay Area.

Hawala transactions are fast and simple. Customers brought their cash into the shop or deposited it directly into ZSQ's bank account. The names of the sender and recipient and the amount to be paid went on a master list the Fremont office then faxed to its partner branches in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Since hawala exchanges operate strictly on trust, the overseas partners paid recipients immediately upon receipt of the fax from America. A man in Little Kabul could plop down $100, and within hours his sister in Kabul would be $95 richer. ZSQ charged only a modest 5 percent commission and paid recipients in stable US dollars rather than the often-erratic local currencies. Qudus would complete the business transactions by wiring lump sums to his foreign partners, who earned a cut of his commission.

For the past several years, East Bay Afghans have depended almost entirely on Qudus to deliver money to their families back home. No other hawalas existed in the area, and before last month, Afghanistan had no international banks. Its economy has remained so unstable that, until its currency was relaunched in October 2002, it traded at 46,000 afghanis to the dollar, which meant the largest Afghan denomination was worth about 20 cents US. Western Union, which charges far higher commissions, doesn't have branches there anyhow.

While many of Qudus' customers have relatives in Pakistan, international banks and Western Union outposts are bitter alternatives for the hawala's impoverished recipients: A $100 transfer from California to Pakistan through Western Union costs $13. And since the money is paid out in Pakistani rupees, unfavorable exchange rates often means the recipient walks away with well under $87. Sending bank checks raises several additional problems. The checks often take weeks to arrive and get processed, fees can be prohibitive, and a bank account -- which many of Qudus' recipients are too poor to maintain -- tends to be a prerequisite for check-cashing. Qudus' American clients also complain that Pakistani bank workers sometimes demand bribes before they'll deliver the money.

Given all this, ZSQ maintained a thriving business. With between 2,500 and 3,000 people moving mostly modest sums -- $100 here, $200 there -- Qudus' monthly transactions averaged $750,000. The figure always shot up in November, during the holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims are expected to fast and donate money they would have spent on food to others less fortunate.

It seems destined to be a rough Ramadan this year, both for the Qudus family and those on the other side of the humanitarian aid pipeline he constructed. The businessman himself will most likely spend his holidays in a jail cell, pending developments in the complicated federal legal drama that shuttered his hawala nearly two months ago.

It's a drama that began when someone walked into his store with a wire and something to sell. Or perhaps it began in late 2001, when the federal government launched the two-year, five-nation investigation that culminated with the arrest of Qudus and ten others. Or maybe it began even earlier, on the day al-Qaeda operatives turned passenger planes into deadly weapons and forever altered the way the US government views the efforts of the Afghan diaspora to send its money home.

• • • •

Zarghuna Qudus remembers her confusion the day they took her husband away. It was 6:30 a.m. on August 29, and Qader was still asleep when federal agents knocked on the door of their Fremont home. They allowed him to dress but not shower, Zarghuna says, then led Qader away as she held their three-year-old son Zamir in her lap. Their older son Shabir, nine, was sleeping and didn't see his father go.

Qader's wife is a slim, stylish woman with delicate features and a warm, soft voice. With Zamir napping on her shoulder, Zarghuna sits in ZSQ's office along with some of her husband's hawala customers, who have agreed to be interviewed, though not photographed.

Zarghuna, who speaks little English, says through a translator she didn't really understand what was happening when the agents came. "They didn't say anything, they just took him," she recalls. "They didn't even handcuff him, they just took him out and he never came back home."

It was only through Jeffrey Nevin, Qudus' attorney, that she learned what had became of her husband. He'd been taken to the Camp Parks Federal Correctional Institute in Dublin. "It's unfair to take a husband, a father, at 6:30 in the morning when he is sleeping without warning him that you will be taken away," she says.

Qudus was indicted with ten other men just over two weeks later. Of the 22 counts in the indictment, he is named in only four. The maximum penalty is nevertheless severe: twenty years in prison followed by a five-year supervised release, and a $500,000 fine. The government also froze Qudus' bank accounts, and ZSQ Exchange was declared closed for the indefinite future. It was a nasty shock for the family, and the East Bay's Afghan and Pakistani immigrants, who'd come to regard Qudus as a pillar of their community and his hawala as a trustworthy business.

Their difficulties, it turned out, were just beginning.

• • • •

Mohammad Yaseen, also known by his American nickname "Jason," owns a small auto-glass business in Hayward. A barrel-chested man with bristly black hair and a quiet, authoritative demeanor, he has for years supported fifteen-plus relatives in Afghanistan and Pakistan -- his mother, a disabled uncle, siblings, step-siblings, in-laws -- through ZSQ Exchange. Many of his relatives are in ill health, Yaseen says, and so poor they are struggling to save enough money even for plastic sheeting to cover a blown-out window.

When ZSQ abruptly closed, Yaseen came up with a stopgap solution: He would wire the cash to a Western Union outlet in Pakistan. His brother Ghulam, who lives in Kabul, would then travel the 200-plus kilometers to the border, and cross over to retrieve it.

It turned out to be a very costly alternative. Yaseen had wired $450 to his cousin, but says Western Union charged $45 for the transfer. Another $35 went up in smoke when the brother swapped his Pakistani rupees for US dollars. By the time Ghulam left the Western Union office, he was down to about $370. As a final blow, his brother was shaken down by a crooked Pakistani cop who demanded to see his identification papers, put him in handcuffs, and hustled him into the back of a police car. Ghulam, his brother says, was told he could go on his way if he surrendered the money -- otherwise, he could go to jail. Ghulam handed over the cash and returned home penniless.

The Hayward small-business owner says he wants to send more, but doesn't know how to do it safely. "It's hard for me," Yaseen says disgustedly. "How do I trust people to give the money at the bank? When I give money, the first robbery is the bank people. The second robbery is the Pakistani police."

His story is fairly typical. ZSQ's closure has had a tremendous local ripple effect across the Bay Area and the Middle East. Alameda County's 2000 Afghan population was 14,600, according to the US Census Bureau -- which is notorious for undercounting recent immigrant populations. Nafisa Rouhani, director of Fremont's Afghan Center, figures the true Bay Area figure is closer to 36,000, which would make it one of the Bay Area's larger immigrant populations.

Although Qudus' shop is technically closed, members of this local community often come around to check on the status of the business and its proprietor.

The place hardly looks like an operation that could determine the welfare of thousands. Sandwiched between a Middle Eastern market and an Afghan restaurant, Global Imports Sales is a modest neighborhood storefront, its display cases carefully laid out with strings of emeralds, carnelian, amethyst, and amber, as well as medallions etched with Islamic teachings in golden script.

On this warm October afternoon, a dozen or so of the store owner's acquaintances and customers clustered around the exchange counter to speak -- some with the aid of an interpreter -- about the fates of their families abroad. One woman wearing a traditional headscarf brought a large loaf of flatbread to share; Reverend Bruce Green of the Centerville Presbyterian Church, who was working with Qudus on a relief project for Afghan students, drifted in to chat. Yasseen was also present, as was Zarghuna Qudus.

Of the customers assembled, none was supporting fewer than five relatives overseas -- in several cases it was closer to twenty. Faruk Obaidi, a San Jose cabinetmaker, estimated he'd been feeding and clothing 42 relatives through ZSQ for the past eight years. "I never lost a penny!" he says proudly.

A few customers said they are too old to work, but they still gather small sums from their children and grandchildren here and bring the money to ZSQ to send home once a month. Everyone had a horror story to tell, either of bad things that already have happened to their relatives because of Qudus' arrest, or disasters they are certain will befall them if the exchange remains closed.

They speak of family members who can no longer pay fees for their children to attend school, or who are sick and can't afford treatment. Nearly all are worried their families aren't getting enough to eat, and they almost universally complain that no matter how hard their relatives try, there are simply no jobs to be had. In many cases, Qudus' customers are the sole sources of income for families with no savings, no access to bank loans, and no valuable assets.

Consider Homyra Adalat, a retired Fremont beautician who supports six family members, including a disabled cousin who lost his feet during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Since ZSQ closed, Adalat says, she feels powerless and worried. She has even resorted to medications, she admits, to help her sleep at night. "They call, they cry that they don't have enough food," she says with resignation. "I told them, 'I can't send you money, what can I do?'"

Then there's Fawzia Ahmad, a Fremont woman who supports six relatives in Kabul with the income from her daughter's job at Fry's Electronics. Asked how the closure is affecting her kin, she says she can only imagine the worst, because they aren't often able to telephone. "A family who has no social support and nothing to do, when that family doesn't get money, what happens to them?" she asks matter-of-factly. "The only way left for these people is praying."

Qudus' customers are especially worried about what will happen if they can't find a way to get money home by the beginning of November, when the rents are due. Ali Mardanzai, executive director of the Hayward-based Afghan & International Refugee Support Services, who has used ZSQ Exchange himself to aid cousins in Islamabad, describes how landlords in Afghanistan and Pakistan handle overdue rents. "Especially in Pakistan, if you don't pay your rent by the third of the month, it is not like in the United States where you can go complain someplace," he says. "They take your goods and throw it out of the window in a very rude way."

In fact, of those customers who agreed to be interviewed, the only ones not worried about the imminent evictions of relatives were those whose families are camped in war-ravaged buildings so squalid they have no landlord. Fawzia Ahmad's family, she says, lives six to a room in a house shared by several other families.

Holding down the front lines at ZSQ is employee Rabia Furmully, a petite Afghan woman in her twenties with thick dark hair. When the shop was open, she sold jewelry and worked the exchange counter, but now she's saddled with the task of turning away would-be clients. "On the phone I am hearing customers every day -- 'My mom is sick. My brother is dying. My sister's landlord is throwing away their home,'" she says. "Some of them are arguing, 'What should I do?' I am answering them, 'What should I do for you? I cannot help you!' Believe me, every day they are making me cry. Because I mean, what can you do?" She waves a hand. "Nothing," she sighs. "Nothing."

At the beginning of September, as rents came due in the Middle East just days after Qudus' arrest, Furmully received a frantic e-mail from the Afghanistan office: Two thousand people were waiting outside wanting to know what was going on. All had to be turned away. Even two months after the ZSQ's closure, Furmully still gets letters from schools and humanitarian aid groups begging the exchange to reopen.

With Qudus absent and his accounts frozen, ZSQ is running into serious money problems of its own. "The shop is open but we cannot run it. He has payments to do but I don't know where to find the money," Zarghuna says. "By the end of this month, if he doesn't get bailed out, his business will be bankrupt, our home will be bankrupt too. For me and his children, we will be out on the streets."

• • • •

Among the most frustrating aspects of the case for the family is the Kafkaesque lack of information about Qudus' fate and the evidence against him. After sending out a September press release trumpeting the arrests and indictments, the federal government has refused to release significant details, even to Qudus' lawyer Jeffrey Nevin. The feds plan to arraign the eleven men together in Maryland sometime this fall and release the full results of their discovery process only then.

Through a spokeswoman, the Department of Justice refused to provide any information about the case prior to the arraignment, and Nevin won't let his client speak publicly. What little is publicly known about the case came out during Qudus' bail hearing in Oakland earlier this month. US Prosecutor James Chou described to the court what the government believes took place that June day when their witness visited Global Import Sales.

According to Chou, the witness had offered to sell his jewelry, but Qudus wasn't interested. The informant persisted, so the jeweler phoned Ali Baigzad, a Union City trader, to come take a look.

Baigzad -- who is erroneously and somewhat tellingly referred to in the official court transcript as "Mr. Baghdad" -- showed up and haggled with the informant over the price, which apparently triggered a discussion of the jewelry's origin. According to Chou's courtroom statements, the informant then sprang his trap, saying: "Look, Qader knows this is all drug money. I'm in the drug business and sometimes you can pick this stuff up real cheap. ... Sometimes we get them for less, but we have to consider them at fair market value."

Baigzad, who was also indicted, allegedly responded: "Yes, yes, true."

And then came the utterance that would change Qudus' life forever. According to the government, he said precisely this:


Attorney Nevin, who was hearing these details for the first time, sounded downright incredulous when his turn came to address the court. "I thought they had something stronger showing actual participation in some direct drug-related transaction, which is not the case," he says. "We've got, from what I understand, an unintelligible grunt that's been recorded in a conversation that linked him, theoretically, to knowledge that a transaction is somehow tainted with heroin. That's their best-case scenario. That's their strongest evidence. They don't have an acknowledgment. They don't have an intelligible response. And they don't have anything other than just that sound, whatever it is."

Was that sound a word, a sentence, a laugh, a sneeze? Who was Qudus speaking to -- Baigzad, the witness, someone else entirely -- and what was his tone of voice? Even if Qudus had been responding to the informant's comment about drugs, Nevin says, "How is my guy to know or not know whether he was kidding, playing games, whether it was a sarcastic joke or a passing stupid statement?"

Nobody has provided any answers. And so, as it now stands, the government's case against Qudus hinges on the shaky premise that he had full knowledge of the conversation between the informant and Baigzad, and that whatever Qudus said on that tape indicated his complicity in what he believed to be a real drug-smuggling operation.

The rest of the accusations are equally amorphous. A few weeks later, the feds allege, Baigzad accepted the jewelry from the informant knowing it was derived from heroin proceeds, wrote him a check for $12,800, and agreed to have Qudus transfer the money to two men in Pakistan: Muzaffar Khan Afridi and his son, Alamdar Khan Afridi, whom the government alleges are drug dealers. Although Qudus wasn't present during that conversation, the feds say he later spoke with their witness to confirm his hawala had transferred the money. The indictment further claims that twice in 2001, Waiz Ul-Din, an alleged drug supplier in Pakistan, moved money through accounts controlled by Qudus.

Yet nowhere in the government's 36-page indictment does it say whether Qudus knew Ul-Din or the Afridi clan were alleged drug dealers, or whether he knew any money transferred through his hawala was linked to the drug trade. US Attorney's Office spokeswoman Vickie LeDuc couldn't comment on whether the government believes Qudus was a knowing conspirator, or simply transferred money for people he assumed were ordinary clients.

• • • •

Though the known evidence against Qudus is skimpy, the government apparently thinks it has enough to lock him up for a long time. Were that to happen, ZSQ's clientele will be left with few options, especially in Afghanistan.

Qudus' supporters disagree on whether Bay Area hawalas began to close after 9/11 under pressure from the federal government, or whether they'd been on the decline all along. But everyone agrees there were few to begin with, and those have largely died off over the past few years. One hawala had been operating out of the insurance agency across the street from ZSQ, but it closed three years ago. From then until his arrest, Qudus was the East Bay's go-to guy.

There had been rumors, however, about a new hawala that supposedly showed up as the feds tightened their net around Qudus. Locating it proved to be like tracking down a ghost or a yeti. Some people were sure it existed. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn't, others said. Most of ZSQ's customers interviewed said they'd never even heard of it. Given ZSQ's fate, on the other hand, they might prefer to keep it a secret.

It turns out a new East Bay hawala does exist, but barely. You'd swear it was nothing more than a tiny, sparsely decorated Hayward pizzeria, were it not for a short line of elderly men animatedly discussing business with the cashier, but clearly not ordering any food.

When asked if he could send money to Pakistan and Afghanistan, the shop's owner looks surprised. He steps out from behind the counter, wiping his hands on a towel, and explains in extremely broken English that he's only been running the exchange for two or three months. His business is modest, maybe 30 to 35 transfers a day. He doubts he's picked up any ZSQ customers, he says, because his shop is too far from Little Kabul.

Is he concerned that what happened to Qudus could happen to him? "I don't worry," the man says. "I have a license and registration."

It sounds like an everyday claim, but in fact, it's a sign of the rapidly changing political climate in which hawalas operate. The system originated in Asia and the Middle East as a way for merchants to safely trade amongst themselves -- it was more expedient to swap credit with trusted colleagues than to move actual money across bandit-infested trade routes. In fact, although the word "hawala" has its roots from the Arabic word for "change" or 'transform," its Hindi and Urdu translations also mean "trust." Now, ironically, many US government agencies believe hawalas are being run by bandits.

Prior to 9/11, the laws governing these exchanges were patchy -- some states required a license to transfer money, some didn't. Following the terrorist attacks, however, several federal agencies took a closer look at money moving to and from the Middle East and concluded that hawalas could be used by money-laundering operations to feed cash to terrorists or the drug-dealing operations that support them. Agencies such as Interpol and the International Monetary Fund also issued detailed post-9/11 briefs about hawalas and their role in abetting "narco-terrorism."

According to the government, the danger posed by hawalas is that their clients can move money around secretly. Banks operating in the United States have to inform the feds of any transaction involving more than $10,000, but a hawala could move many times that without the authorities being the wiser.

Although Qudus kept meticulous records of ZSQ's transactions, many hawalas don't maintain a paper trail. "Thousands, even millions of dollars at a time can crisscross the globe in a matter of hours, tracked only by a secret code and disposable scraps of paper, making hawala investigations a shell game of global proportions," stated an article in the April 2002 edition of US Customs Today. "Even at its most benign, hawala cheats governments of legally owed taxes, customs duties, and other fees that are the rightful income of nations -- money that is desperately needed, especially in the countries where it is practiced, to improve those countries' economic conditions."

After 9/11, the US government began to shut down exchanges operating without federal oversight. One offshoot of the hydra known as the PATRIOT Act was a new federal law requiring all businesses that wire money overseas to register with the government as of January 2002. A few months prior to that deadline, the feds had launched Operation Green Quest, an interagency task force designed to cut off terrorists' access to overseas funding.

The operation has since shut down some hawalas and charities that were indeed supplying money to terrorist organizations. These included the Al-Barakaat transfer network, which skimmed from aid funds for Somali refugees and sent the money to al-Qaeda and other terror groups; and the Holy Land Foundation in Texas, which was funneling money to Hamas.

But the government believes hawalas are used by a wide variety of criminals. "If I were a money launderer or a drug or arms trafficker and I wanted to move my illicit proceeds out of the country, I would much rather do it through an unlicensed business than a bank," says Dean Boyd, spokesman for US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, one of the agencies behind Operation Green Quest. "A bank is obviously going to file some reports to the government and may ask some questions. A business that operates outside of the law is not likely to ask questions, and frankly they're in it for the money."

Yet Boyd concedes that many hawalas are above-board operations that perform a useful service. "The government has no beef with people who are wiring money to relatives overseas," he says, "but it does have a problem if this business that's doing it is not registered with the government and therefore is susceptible to abuse by criminals."

Lack of federal oversight, Boyd adds, puts the hawala's owner in jeopardy. "They may not necessarily know where the money's coming from, and they may ultimately find themselves moving funds that belong to terrorists without their knowledge, or funds that came from drug trafficking," he says. "In many places we have found that not only did they not know, they clearly did not want to know."

The eagerness to prosecute someone like Qudus may stem in part from the government's knowledge that drug money has in some cases been used to fund terrorist activities. US Attorney's Office spokeswoman LeDuc confirms that the feds are actively investigating any such links in the case involving Qudus. "To date," she says, however, "no such charges are contained in the indictment."

For now, the only thing Qudus admittedly did wrong was never even mentioned in the indictment: He was operating ZSQ without a state license to transfer money. Such a license would have fulfilled his obligations under federal law.

Both Nevin and employee Furmully say Qudus never intended to break the law; he was simply the victim of bad advice. Long before the passage of the PATRIOT Act, they say, Qudus consulted a lawyer who told him that since the hawala was more of a nonprofit community service than a business, it was not imperative for him to get a license.

The government thought otherwise. In April 2002, the California Department of Financial Institutions issued ZSQ a cease and desist order. Local community and immigrants' rights groups sent letters asking the state to let Qudus continue operations while he filed the necessary paperwork. The lack of a license troubled Qudus, but he kept the store open. "That was the one and only thing that he was worried about," Furmully says. "But he couldn't tell the customers that 'I am not going to help you.'"

According to documents submitted to the court by his lawyer this spring, Qudus sought out a legal agreement with a preexisting transfer business. In a cruelly ironic twist, a letter arrived just days after Qudus was arrested, saying he'd finally been approved by the California Department of Financial Institutions to transfer money as an agent of a licensed company called Maniflo Money Exchange.

Too little, too late.

• • • •

According to his friends, family, and the many clients who have turned out to support him, Qader Qudus is a man who, in accordance with Muslim law, has never touched alcohol, much less trafficked in hard drugs. His life story, as related in the court filings, is a classic clean-living, up-by-your-bootstraps tale that wouldn't feel out of place in a Horatio Alger novel.

According to documents submitted by his lawyer, Qudus came to the United States in 1982, where he earned his citizenship and worked his way through a series of menial jobs to middle-class stability. He learned English through adult school classes, worked as a night janitor in a fast-food restaurant, and took odd jobs in warehouses before being hired in 1986 by Seagate Technology, a prominent manufacturer of disc-drives in Scotts Valley, near Santa Cruz. He stayed with Seagate for nearly a decade, ultimately becoming a plating supervisor, and then started a business selling computer parts out of his garage. He was so successful that he left Seagate and went into business for himself. Ultimately, he switched from selling computers to jewelry and gifts, and opened the storefront in Little Kabul. He married in 1993, began exchanging money in 1994, and started his family soon after.

When asked to describe her husband's passions, Zarghuna Qudus describes someone who is, at heart, a banker. "The thing he likes is a good day, a normal day, which is: He comes in in the morning, does his job in the office very clean and thoroughly, comes back home, helps out the children with their homework, watches the news, does his prayers. Very straightforward."

Over the years, Qudus had earned a name for himself in the Afghan community, not simply for running ZSQ, but for being a man of kindness and integrity. If a client couldn't pony up the cash to send home one month, Qudus would advance it. If someone mentioned a needy student or family in Afghanistan whom they couldn't support, Qudus had been known to donate his own money.

He gained respect outside Little Kabul as well. When Tony Kushner's play Homebody/Kabul was staged in Berkeley last year, the playwright consulted Qudus about the authenticity of the costumes. Qudus also forged alliances with people of other religious faiths. Last year he teamed up with several East Bay Christian churches to form the Afghan Blessing Co-Op, which would match sponsor families in the United States with poor students in Kabul, allowing them to attend college. In return, the students would write letters to their sponsors, thanking them and verifying that they'd received the funds sent by ZSQ. "I liked the idea for people to learn more about Afghanistan and what the situation is there," says now-retired Pastor Donald Green, formerly of Christ the King Lutheran Church in Fremont, who dreamed up the project along with Qudus. "It would bring the world closer together again, the first world and the Third World. That was something that Qader and I envisioned."

But that program, too, was monkey-wrenched by the indictment. The first donations, collected from various East Bay pastors as examples to their congregations, went out just prior to Qudus' arrest. Now it's unclear whether they can continue.

Likewise, Qudus' own fate is uncertain. He remains imprisoned, despite Nevin's pleas to get him out on bail. At the Oakland hearing, Qudus' supporters packed the courtroom. Five of them offered to mortgage their homes as bail collateral. And although Oakland federal judge Wayne Brazil agreed to $1 million bail, a federal judge in Maryland reversed the decision, ruling instead that a new bail hearing would take place in his jurisdiction. That court similarly turned down Nevin's request to let Qudus attend the hearings via teleconference to spare his being transferred to an East Coast jail.

The Maryland bail hearing, which commenced Monday, has been continued for at least a week. If denied bail, Qudus will remain in jail during what is expected to be a very lengthy trial. No date is set for the arraignment, but Nevin expects it won't happen for two to three months.

In the meantime, the lack of information from the federal government has made it hard for Nevin to formulate his defense. "It's like saying, 'How are you going to play the game?' when you don't even know what your opponent is," the lawyer says with a sigh. Some arguments, nevertheless, seem clear enough to him. Nevin vehemently contests the prosecution's claim that Qudus knew the jewelry sold to Baigzad came from drug money. "There's no statement that the government has back from my client that says anything like an acknowledgment or an agreement or happiness or even acquiescence that what's happening is a drug transaction," he says. "All they have is the word 'unintelligible.'"

It is possible, he concedes, that Qudus later transferred money for the alleged smugglers believing it was relief money. "He may have been an unwilling, unwitting, unknowing participant in the transfer of illegal funds," Nevin says. But the lawyer feels it's ridiculous to hold the transfer agent responsible for the money's history: "If a drug dealer walks into San Francisco's Western Union and wires $10,000 to the Western Union in Lima, Peru, for the purchase and sale of cocaine, Western Union doesn't know where it's going to or whom it's coming from. You don't indict Western Union." Nor, one might point out, would the government dare freeze Western Union's accounts and put it out of business.

As testimony to Qudus' innocence, Nevin notes that Qudus knew he was under investigation and has cooperated fully with the government. In June, prior to the sting, federal agents had shown up with warrants to search his home and business. By all accounts, Qudus had complied completely, even zealously. Nevin says Qudus invited the agents to search his warehouse -- which they hadn't known about, and didn't have a warrant to search -- and suggested the officers bring in drug-sniffing dogs. He also voluntarily skipped his family's planned summer visit to Afghanistan -- an opportunity a guilty man would have taken to flee the country, Nevin argues.

Indeed, some of Qudus' non-Muslim friends seemed more outraged by the search than he was. "I said, 'Don't you feel singled out?' recalls Bruce Green's colleague Pastor Greg Roth of the Centerville Presbyterian Church, which also participated in the Afghan Blessing Co-Op project. "[Qudus] said, 'It's part of the tense times we live in. The goal is to keep everything open and transparent.'"

Yet despite all the talk of drugs and money at the heart of this legal drama are things much harder to pin down in a courtroom: questions of ethnicity, religion, and the political rancor between Qudus' homeland and his adopted country. His supporters say Qudus is guilty of no more than being an Afghan American and a Muslim in a post-9/11 world. "He is Muslim and helping out Muslims in the world, so that's what is the cause for his going to jail," Zarghuna says unflinchingly. "The only reason is that things got bad against the Muslims and Afghans in this country and his fault is to help out the Muslims and Afghans."

Qudus' lawyer likes to portray him as a small fish caught in a large net, a victim of overzealous prosecution. "They are overreaching beyond the intent of the PATRIOT Act," Nevin concludes. "I hope that they're careful not to catch innocents in their net to track down Osama bin Laden."

Qudus' supporters note with irony that ZSQ was succeeding where many government programs have failed in delivering relief to counteract the devastation of the US bombing campaign following years of civil war and oppressive Taliban rule. "Qader willingly stuck his neck out in order to meet the needs of these people," Reverend Green says. "He knew he was taking risks, but he was basically optimistic that there would be an understanding of the dilemma facing these people, and a commitment on the part of our government to help rebuild Afghanistan. He was operating with a clear conscience and a desire to participate in the rebuilding program which we're all supposed to be cheering on."

In the meantime, the customers who relied on Qudus can do little but wait for the justice system to slowly grind its gears. They want him back, and not just for the sake of their families. They also miss him personally, having realized in his absence just what a powerful force the man has been in holding the worldwide Afghan community together.

They are hoping beyond hope that Qudus will somehow be returned to them by late next month. That's because the final day of Eid al-Fitr, the three-day feast that ends Ramadan, falls directly on Thanksgiving this year -- a coincidence that occurs just once every 35 years. For East Bay's Muslims and Christians alike, November 27 will mark a great day of celebration, a time when the pipeline from Little Kabul to Big Kabul should be unusually full of gifts. It also comes at month's end, as December rents are coming due. "We want him to be around by then," his wife says. "If not, I will have to make a tent just by the prison to be close to my husband. That is all I can do."

As for Furmully, every day brings more anguished letters and drop-in clients who hadn't yet heard the exchange was closed. Go home, she tells them. She cannot help.

Sitting behind ZSQ's now-lonely exchange counter, Furmully ponders the plight of her boss and again begins to cry. "Every time he calls his home and here in the office, we say that we are worried about you," she says, snuffling into a Kleenex. "He says, 'I am not worried at all because I haven't done anything wrong.' It is the sentence that he is repeating every time.

"He says, 'I am comfortable with myself and with my heart. I just help the people.' "


Originally Published: October 22, 2003, East Bay Express

All content copyright Kara Platoni. Please contact for permission before reproducing.