BANGKOK (AlertNet) - It was his kidnapping and near death at the hands of Muslim extremists, followed by the murder of a cousin, that pushed Mehmood to leave his native Pakistan.
Two years ago, the 35-year-old packed his bag, hugged his pregnant wife and two young children, grabbed the passport his brother handed him containing a tourist visa for Thailand, and boarded a plane to an unfamiliar country.
Mehmood, who declined to give his full name, had always been hounded in Pakistan for being a member of the Ahmadiyya sect, a minority Islamic group considered heretical by mainstream Muslims.
But things took a more sinister turn, when he found himself at the mercy of “Mullahs with long beards and guns” for 36 days in a remote area where they threatened to kill him because of his religious affiliation.
He was released after the payment of a huge fee by his family and the intervention of an acquaintance native to the area where he was being held.
Mehmood went into hiding. A few months later, a cousin who was trying to find out more about the kidnapping was shot dead outside his house. At that point, the religious leader and former university teacher decided to flee Pakistan.
“Nobody wants to leave his country,” said the soft-spoken and eloquent man, sitting cross-legged in a small, airy flat in a suburb almost an hour’s drive from downtown Bangkok.
“I know I have left my brothers, my sisters and my relations, which I can never have in any other country.”
Mehmood’s story is not unique. Saima Noree Azhar, whose family of six now lives two floors up in the same building, said they quit Pakistan after her husband was accused of a crime he didn’t commit.
But after arriving in Thailand, their problems were far from over. Mehmood and his family, who had joined him a few months later, were arrested on Dec. 14 in a raid by Thai immigration officers.
Eighty-six Ahmadi asylum seekers and refugees, including Azhar’s family and dozens of children, were bundled into police vans and driven to Bangkok's Immigration Detention Centre.
All had entered Thailand legally but overstayed their visas while waiting to be registered by the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR).
Although Mehmood’s family hold documentation from UNHCR saying they are asylum seekers, Thailand - which has not signed the 1951 Refugee Convention - considers them illegal immigrants.
They spent close to six months at the detention centre in unhygienic and crowded conditions, Mehmood said. Worse, the family was split up because men and women are held in separate cells.
“One day, when my son was alone in the hospital, I thought, ‘we’re dying here individually’,” he said.
“I am here, my wife is in her cell, my son is alone at the hospital. So it’s better that we go home and we die together, because we know that if we returned to our country, it’s equal to suicide.”
Health and hygiene were another problem in the detention centre. “There was only one tap. We were using the water for our toilet, for taking our shower, for washing our clothes, for cleaning our rooms, and we used to drink from that tap,” said Mehmood, who has worked as a volunteer with refugee groups during his time in Bangkok.
There were around 100 detainees in his cell. The ladies’ quarters were so crowded some had to stand all night, and one Ahmadi refugee gave birth in detention, he said.
After months of waiting, a local non-government organisation, the Thai Committee for Refugees (TCR), put up a five million baht ($160,000) bond, opening the door to their freedom.
On June 6, 96 Ahmadis, including 33 children and a newborn baby, were released from the detention centre - an unprecedented move in the Southeast Asian country that is struggling to deal with hundreds of thousands of refugees and asylum seekers.
Within days, however, a further 32 Ahmadis were arrested in Bangkok, raising questions about the minority’s future treatment at the hands of the Thai authorities.
Founded in the 19th century, the Ahmadiyya sect’s members believe there have been other prophets of Islam since its founder Mohammad, although he is regarded as the most important. They are barred by Pakistani law from calling themselves Muslims.
Human Rights Watch says the number of Ahmadiyya followers worldwide is unclear, but there may be up to 10 million, mostly based in India and Pakistan, but also in Bangladesh, Indonesia, Ghana, Burkina Faso, Gambia, Europe and North America.
Rights groups and experts say official discrimination, as in Pakistan, fuels hatred of the community and spurs violent attacks against its members.
In Indonesia earlier this year, a mob beat to death three Ahmadis while police officers watched. A 2008 watchdog report highlighted the human rights abuses faced by Indonesian Ahmadi women, while Bangladesh has not treated them kindly either.
Knowing this makes Mehmood and his community deeply appreciative of their newfound freedom in Thailand.
Since their release, they have been living in accommodation arranged for them by TCR, in a four-storey block of one-room flats in a Bangkok suburb. Here, 25 families live and pray in peace. They hold regular meetings, prayer sessions and classes for their children.
“With (having been in) detention for six months, I think we have reduced our lives by six years,” Mehmood said, adding that the children are still suffering the after-effects of having been detained and separated from their parents.
One way to create a sense of normality is to continue with their education while the families wait to be resettled in a third country. This will very likely be the United States, as the U.S. authorities are now processing the Ahmadis’ asylum applications, with support from the Thai Committee for Refugees.
“We’re thankful to TCR that they’re going to arrange these things for us,” Mehmood said. “It’s going to take some time but at least now there is hope.”