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by Michael Mates

As a newly minted vice consul at Embassy Islamabad, I interviewed high-ranking generals, scholars, and artists as well as those from the other end of the spectrum—the peasant with no English planning a marketing survey for local sandals in the USA, the convicted rapist who wanted a refusal in order to avoid a court summons, the oily types with no bank statements and dollops of gold nestling on their chest-fur. The cool mendacity of some applicants took the breath away.

But it was the multifaceted complexity of fraudulent efforts to gain undeserved benefits via fiddled documents that fascinated us most.

One of the most fascinating was the case of a drug-smuggler who claimed to have been born in Montana to a Sierra Leonean mother.

It was on October 12, 1993, that we heard of this arrest of a reported American citizen in the Northern Areas, as she attempted to cross into China with two kilograms of high-quality heroin. I was deputed as the Consular Officer to do the mandatory consular jail visit.

Getting to Gilgit took either an 18-hour bus ride or a flight that was famous for not flying. The 44-seat Fokker flies through spectacular scenery, the rugged Karakoram Range, tall spiky mountains as far as the eye can see, and magnificent peaks that loom menacingly a few hundred yards off each wingtip.

But the pilots and ground control picked their flight days well; the weather was glorious coming and going, the fresh snow swathing the mountains like very expensive cream.

View of Gilgit from Wikimedia Commons


I was met at the airport by Inspector Y, a hawk-faced young PNCB (Pakistan Narcotics Control Board) Inspector (three pips on his epaulets, equal to an Army Captain). His was the face on the cover of Olaf Caroe’s The Pathans: lean, courteous, grave and implacable, the exemplar of Pukhtoonwala, the Pathan code of honor, courtesy and revenge. He was my driver and bodyguard for the trip. (Gilgit is famous for its sectarian clashes between the aroused clerics and followers of the Sunni and Shia parties, aggravated by the heavy weaponry, up to rocket launchers, used to attempt resolution of differences. Many intersections were guarded by a white-gloved solder, snapping signals smartly at the traffic, with the added gravitas of a .50 cal machine gun mounted on his kiosk.)

Going Directly to Jail

So off we went to the prison. While waiting for the prisoner, I chatted with the guards and the superintendent. It was now about 0815, and a group of prisoners was seated in the sun, idly talking. A number of free people were mingling with the prisoners. No chains, no cowed expressions, and the superintendent was very proud that in his jail there were no interrogation (torture) cells as in the “down country.” An oddly friendly atmosphere, mountain folk guarding mountain folk with an offhand dignity.

Soon the prisoners were brought: the “American” and her Norwegian co-prisoner, M. I wondered why M was brought along, until I started talking with the “American.” She had very little English, was illiterate, and needed M to read for her and tell her story. Speaking in halting English, she explained that she had been born in Montana to an African mother and grew up there.

Her story “aroused ConOff’s suspicions.” The prisoner was born in 1963, when the presence of a Sierra Leonean woman in Montana was as likely as a Big Bob’s House of Pounded Yams restaurant chain, and she could not give any sort of plausible story about how she applied for and received her U.S. passport, or identify the American coins I always carried with me.

I was becoming pretty sure that she was demonstrably non-American, an outcome that would have kept me from having to brave the vagaries of the Gilgit flight every month for a visit. Despite my doubts, I continued the interview, asking the prisoner to fill out the Privacy Act Waiver. She did not remember anyone’s address in the USA, or anywhere else, for that matter, saying “I trow away address book” in the town where she was arrested.

After the Interview

The interview over, I was taken back to PNCB headquarters, where I was given a full account of her arrest. The two women had come over from China by land, traveled to Lahore, and picked up 4 kilos of heroin there with a promise of $50,000 if they carried the narcotics safely over the Kunjerab Pass into China. They had just been cleared by Customs and Immigration, when a PNCB Field Investigation Officer (FIO) happened to hear a conversation between the manager of the hotel where the women had stayed and another person. The manager had expressed surprise that his guests had purchased so many bandages, when neither was wounded. The FIO ran up to the van, arrested the two women and a male companion, and then hired a vehicle to take them back to Hunza, where the women could be searched in the Ladies’ Wing of the hospital. (The PNCB is badly understaffed and underequipped in the Northern Areas.) Sure enough, each woman had 1 kilo of heroin strapped with bandages to each of the four thighs involved.

Have Knife, Will Check

Back to the prison where I gained custody of the passport. A swift glance through the lens on my Swiss Army knife showed all the signs of photo-substitution: misaligned legends, poor cropping and puckered laminate. I mentioned that I would need to take the passport back to Islamabad, to transmit the passport photo back to the Forensics Document Lab in Virginia, which would then send it on to the issuing passport office for confirmation that the photo in the passport did not match that of the original applicant. They consented graciously, and I buttoned it into the inside breast pocket of my blazer. (I was on official business, so I was wearing blazer and tie—the only person I saw in the rather rough frontier town in such odd dress.)

After lunch, it was back to the prison for a further chat with the prisoner to see if I could find out who she really was and where she got the passport. No dice. As I left the prison through the stoop door at front, I bowed and murmured “Ijazat hai?” (literally, “Is there permission?” used there socially when guests beg leave to depart), and got a big laugh from the grizzled old guards.

Approval to Testify

By late 1993, the State Department legal experts had approved my limited waiver of immunity to testify in the trial of the heroin-smuggler in Gilgit. (Diplomats cannot be compelled to give evidence; hence the need for a waiver.) I was permitted only to testify that the person who originally applied for and received the passport was not the person then in jail, and to make the point that the U.S. Government takes seriously the misuse of its travel documents. However, the court was closed January and February, because of the cold in Gilgit.

In the spring of 1994, trial dates for the prisoner in Gilgit started filtering out of the court system, and I started my attempts to reach Gilgit. In one week, I lost 13 hours waiting for the Gilgit flight (“famous for not flying”). Actually, it flew twice, but, unfortunately, turned back exactly the same number of times.

After 14 bad-weather cancellations, I managed to get near “our” prisoner, but the judge (actually Magistrate First Class) who was supposed to be there wasn’t. The day started off easily enough—a civilized departure time, 0930 arrival at Islamabad Airport, whisked into the First-Class Lounge by the Assistant Station Manager and assigned my favorite seat on the Fokker 27 (D4, lots of legroom and a good view). Smooth takeoff (these Northern Area pilots are like the Jeep drivers in Gilgit and Hunza: the bad ones are all dead), the usual spectacular miles of mountains. The rivers were still frozen, and even the steep downhill streams were sparkling little varicose icicles. Smooth landing on a sunny highland plateau, a warm sunny day in the delicately thin air at 4,500 feet.

I had all my evidence—the passport used by the prisoner, the original application for the passport (all cover-sheeted, grommeted, sealed and red-ribboned from the legal experts at State), and permission to have my diplomatic immunity waived to testify in court on this one issue. The case looked good: no one would try to say that the illegal passport-holder, a heavy-boned Black woman, was the same as the genuine holder, a slender blond.

But as I strolled into the car park, I realized there was no one to greet me, and I called my contact, the police official who was arranging everything. Sorry, the man is in Lahore. Something of a letdown, after all the failed attempts. I hired a jeep and went the four kilometers to my hotel, where I made further inquiries about any other first-class magistrates (or even economy-class), and found that there were two other first-class, but neither was willing or competent to handle the case. I thought I’d try a deposition, and borrowed the hotel’s manual typewriter and typed up a document, with smudged letters and numerous misspellings caused by the tendency of the “b” and the “v” to repeat themselves, no matter what other letter I might have wanted to follow on. If I remembered to yank these letter keys back after each use, I was OK.

And so off to the judicial chambers, hoping that my affidavit, outlining my testimony, would suffice instead of a trial. Again, no dice. I met both magistrates, counsel for the defense, another lawyer whose connection to the case was peripheral, and a number of clerks. But everything had to be done in front of the right judge, with defendant and counsel present. That was the conclusion of several hours of talk and a good bit of tea.

One week later, after four days of weather-delayed flights, I arrived again in Gilgit, having obtained assurances from the Magistrate that the case would be heard that day. I was not happy to hear, when I telephoned him at 0900, shortly after my arrival, that the prisoner was under trial for the heroin charge, and would not be available that day. Once again, I went down to the chambers and prepared to wait things out. After drinking tea for two hours, and mentioning that the American Embassy took this case very seriously and might have to ask that the government have the prisoner brought to Islamabad for trial, I was rewarded with the news that the prisoner and her defense counsel would be coming soon.

At 1230, prisoner and counsel arrived, and after another cup of tea, we were under way at 1245. Prosecutor and then defense counsel asked me questions in Urdu, I replied in Urdu, and then the prosecutor put my replies into a more elegant and idiomatic version of the language. The magistrate, in a curiously subordinate role, merely transcribed.


After the case had been summarized, the prosecutor yielded to the defense counsel at 1330. He said that he would take a short time and ask a few questions. The prosecutor said “Take a long time.” The high points of the Q&A’s went like this:

Q:      If an American citizen intends to visit any country, are there any restrictions? A: Generally, no, with a few exceptions.

Q:      [Pointing to a Chinese visa in the passport.] Is this a Chinese visa? A: I have no permission to testify on that matter. You would have to talk to the Chinese authorities.

Q:      This fraud was not detected when the prisoner traveled to China and Pakistan. Are you the first to detect it? A: So it seems.

Q:      Do these documents [pointing the packet sent by the Department of State] include copies of the original applications of the original holder? A: Yes. [As defense counsel’s questions made their mechanical progress, and he made no effort at follow-up, it became clear that his heart was not in the case.]

Q:      I would like to suggest that the passport is genuine and that these documents are an attempt to avoid shame for the United States if she is convicted of narcotics smuggling. [Again, no evidence of any zeal. In fact, he had the courtesy to appear a bit embarrassed.] A. That is not correct.

Q:      When an American visits a foreign country, is he required to register at the U.S. Embassy? A: No.

Q:      The prisoner said in her statement that she is an American. What do you say? A: My statement is in these documents.

Q:      If a passport is stolen and replaced, does the U.S. government initiate an investigation? From where and at what place is this investigation done? A: According to my instructions, I am not permitted to answer these questions.

Q:      Is it possible that this may be a result of a mistake during the printing of the passport? A: It is not possible for our passport-printing process to make such a mistake.

Q:      Where is the original passport holder living now? A: I have no idea.

With that, the hearing ended, with defense counsel making his final observation: “These fellows do their job, and I do mine. I trust that justice will be served.” That was May 1994. Sentencing was promised in a month or so.

Gilgit—Done at Last

The prisoner got six years, just for the passport fiddling. She maintained that she was the U.S. citizen identified in the passport, and would not tell anyone where she was really from.

Thus ended the first year of my first posting overseas, in which the Gilgit Passport Case took first prize as the most interesting and rewarding event in a crowded field. It was a great year. I got out of the office a lot.End.


Michael Mates

After teaching for 20 years, Michael Mates joined the Foreign Service in 1992. Following Islamabad, the source of this tale, he served in Canberra, Karachi, Cluj (Romania), Columbia (District of), and Chisinau.  He retired in 2011, and took up gardening on 2.5 acres in Monroe, Washington State.


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