For two weeks, Rehan Motiwala, a 29-year-old medical student from Pomona, sat stranded at the Bangkok airport, sleeping for 10 nights on a roach-infested mattress in a dank, windowless detention room reserved for deportees.
Motiwala, a U.S. citizen, wanted to return to his family in Southern California. But earlier this month, as he traveled from Jakarta, Indonesia, to LAX, airline staff in Bangkok refused to issue him a boarding pass for his connecting flight. U.S. and Thai officials told him that he could not travel but offered no explanation, leading him to believe he'd been placed on the U.S. government's secret no-fly list.
After dozing on benches and wandering the airport terminal for four nights, Motiwala was told that a Justice Department official had arrived from the United States to question him. When he declined to answer questions without a lawyer present, U.S. officials left him in the custody of Thai authorities, who tossed him into a detention center in the bowels of Suvarnabhumi Airport.
"They treat you like an animal," Motiwala said in a phone interview....
Motiwala, whose parents are of Pakistani origin, was not told why he might be on the list. A likely possibility, however, is his contact with Tablighi Jamaat, a conservative Muslim missionary movement based in South Asia.
He took leave from medical school last year, traveled to Pakistan to visit relatives and went on to Indonesia to work with the group, members of which go around the world proselytizing for Islam.
Tablighi Jamaat is widely regarded as peaceful and apolitical, and claims millions of followers, but U.S. and European law enforcement officials have raised questions about possible connections to radical Islam.
Motiwala first heard of the movement when he arrived last year in Karachi, the Pakistani mega-city where his family members live. Inspired by the Tablighis' devotion, he began attending their meetings, improved his Urdu language skills, grew a beard and shed his Western clothes for a Pakistani shalwar kameez, a long tunic
"They were very welcoming," Motiwala said. "We would ask people to come pray at the mosque, talk about the greatness of God, sit in gatherings and listen to prayers."Motiwala's parents said he wasn't particularly religious as a child.
Born in Anaheim, he grew up in West Covina and Pomona with three brothers, including a twin. He attended UC Irvine, graduating magna cum laude in 2007 with a degree in neurobiology, a university spokeswoman said.
He enrolled in medical school at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, but after two years began to lose interest, he said. He was considering switching to homeopathic medicine and traveled to Pakistan partly to explore continuing his medical studies there.
"I supported him, as long as he did the education," said his father, Rafiq, a retired accountant. When his son spoke about his growing interest in Islam,
he said, "I was happy about it, as long as he goes in the right direction."