'We grew up fighting': CT correction officer was political prisoner in Pakistan

Mansoor Laghari stands outside the Corrigan-Radgowski Correctional Center, where he works as a correction officer, Friday, July 28, 2017.  (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Mansoor Laghari stands outside the Corrigan-Radgowski Correctional Center, where he works as a correction officer, Friday, July 28, 2017. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

Norwich — Mansoor Hussain Laghari vividly remembers the day after President Donald Trump was elected.

As Laghari was walking the halls of the Radgowski Building at the Corrigan-Radgowski Correctional Center, where he works as a correction officer, he couldn’t drown out the inmates’ voices.

“Some prisoners were screaming,” the 46-year-old said. “They were saying, ‘He will be sending you back to where you came from.’”

A U.S. citizen since 2010, Laghari brushed off their taunts. But his mind couldn’t help but wander back to his homeland of Pakistan, where he could be killed if he returned.

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Born in 1970, Laghari was exposed to prison at a young age. His father, Ghulam Muhammad Laghari, devoted his life to fighting for freedomfirst from the British and later from other oppressive regimes.

As a result, the elder Laghari frequently was jailed for political offenses. Odd as it may sound, Laghari has warm memories of visiting his father there. His scarier memories come from outside the prison’s walls.

When he was 7, for example, Laghari remembers hundreds of people converging on his home, lobbing stones and petrol bombs. Because his father was seen as an anti-government activist, police did nothing to settle the mob. It dispersed only when Laghari’s 17-year-old cousin rigged up an antique shotgun and fired it into the air.

Ghulam Muhammad Laghari spent about 24 of the last 42 years of his life imprisoned. It was in prison in 1982 that he died. Even in death, prison was present: Officers came to his funeral with an arrest warrant, Laghari said, and wouldn’t let the proceedings continue until the family furnished a death certificate.

“That’s how I went through my childhood, seeing all that,” Laghari said. “After my father’s death — I was close with him — I kind of stood (for) what he stood for.”

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In college, Laghari joined the left-wing Pakistan Peoples Party — a party his father had not always been a member of but had joined later in life.

Sometime in the mid-1980s — not long after he became involved — a government agent shot and killed a friend of his in the same party. Police surrounded the bus that he and other students had taken to console the family. Laghari feared he, too, would be shot. Instead, the officers took him to a familiar place: Prison.

Laghari would be jailed about five more times in the following decade. He’d watch the late PPP candidate Benazir Bhutto rise to power democratically — the first woman to do so in Pakistan — only to be ousted a few years later. She was assassinated in 2007.

All the while, political clashes in the country grew ever more violent.

In early 1999, Laghari emerged from his home to find a government agent sitting on a lawn chair next door, surrounded by the bodies of Laghari’s neighbors. Upset over a dispute, he had killed the whole family, Laghari said. The man stayed there, triumphant, for three hours.

“That was 15, 20 feet from my house,” he said. “At that point I said, ‘It’s over. I need to leave. It’s getting too crazy here.’”

Laghari secured a visa and headed toward Connecticut, where his brother had been living since the 1970s. When he landed in the United States in 1999, it was with the intention to apply for asylum as soon as possible.

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It took Laghari two years to gather proof he was being persecuted — newspaper clippings, statements from PPP leaders, jail records.

When his application for asylum came back, however, it was denied. Laghari’s evidence stacked up, the denial said, but he had failed to apply within a year of arriving to the country.

The denial put Laghari in line for deportation — a move he fought and ultimately won. For the seven years in between, Laghari, lacking legal status, was in limbo.

Most employers wouldn’t hire him. He couldn’t drive. Every six months, he returned to court to see whether a judge would allow his legal team an extension or order him deported.

Mansoor Hussain Laghari
Mansoor Hussain Laghari (Courtesy of Mansoor Hussain Laghari)

Still, life in the United States blew Laghari away. He vowed to join the U.S. Army National Guard as a way of saying thanks and did on the very day he got his green card in 2006.

“In Pakistan, we always struggled for freedom, justice and equality,” he said. “But my whole life, until I left, I had no idea what it looks like.”

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Laghari spent about nine years in the guard before being honorably discharged for medical reasons.

He went back to Pakistan once prior to that, in 2012. The 14 days he spent with his daughters, now 19 and 18, were great, he said. But as he headed toward the airport, a man on a motorcycle turned an AK-47 in his direction and fired several rounds.

“I can’t go back,” Laghari said. “After all those years, I’m still on their list.”

Laghari signed on as a correction officer in October 2015. It’s work that reminds him of the time he spent with his imprisoned father in his youth. It’s related to his studies in political science and law, too.

“I think it’s really underappreciated, what we do,” he said. “Most of the time the community forgets about the people they put away.”

When Laghari finishes up his midnight shifts, he returns to a Norwich home he shares with his oldest daughter, who’s studying to become a doctor. He hopes to bring his younger daughter over in the near future, too. He worries when he thinks about how a Trump administration policy could prohibit that.

“My family, we grew up fighting" Islamic extremist terrorists, Laghari said. “When nobody else in the world knew of their existence, we were dealing with them. Those are people who wanted to kill us.”

“Sometimes I feel like we have to prove to people that we are loyal to this country because of the color of our skin or where we come from,” he continued. “But look at me," he said, adding that he has done all he could for this country.

l.boyle@theday.com

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