New Age Islam
Sun Oct 25 2020, 01:15 AM

Current Affairs ( 22 March 2010, NewAgeIslam.Com)

The incredible high stakes gamble that saved Sahil

By Andrew Chapman and Jo Macfarlane

The father of five-year-old kidnap victim Sahil Saeed told for the first time yesterday of the chilling moment he was told by the gang holding the boy: ‘Do exactly as we say, or you will be receiving a little gift – any part of his body.’

They threatened to cut off the boy’s arms, fingers, ears and even a leg and said they would deliver it in a black bin bag if their demands were not followed to the letter.

In a heartfelt interview with The Mail on Sunday after an emotional reunion with his son, Raja Saeed told how, after Sahil was kidnapped during a family holiday to Pakistan, the  gang demanded his father return to Britain and raise a £200,000 ransom to free Sahil within 12 hours of landing.

And as they became increasingly frustrated by his pleas that he was not a wealthy man and could not possibly raise such a sum they told him: ‘Look, you know how we came to your house in jackets packed with bullets and grenades.

'You know what we can do to him – we can put a jacket around him with grenades and explosives and blow him to pieces. And we will deliver what’s left of him to you in a bin bag on a roundabout.’

As Raja revealed the full horrifying details of the family’s ordeal for the first time, his distraught wife Akila Naqqash broke down.

This was the first time she had heard how the gang had threatened to dismember her little boy.

Her husband and brothers had kept the  shocking details away from her to spare her anguish.

Raja risked everything by negotiating with the kidnappers to bring the final ransom down to £110,000 – a sum which was eventually raised by his close-knit family.

But even after the money was dropped off last week in Paris, he received a final, chilling warning from the gang, which means the family may never rest easy.

In a final phone call, unaware that they were already the subject of an international police operation, they told him: ‘If you ever try to get help from the police, this gang is really big. We can do anything with you in Europe and we can do anything back home with your parents in Pakistan.’

The story of little Sahil’s kidnap made headlines around the world after he was snatched during a robbery.

Raja, from Oldham, had arranged for Sahil to go with him on a holiday to Pakistan to see his family, who live in Jhelum in the Punjab region, two hours’ drive from the capital, Islamabad.

Sahil’s mother Akila did not go because she had recently had an asthma attack, and agreed to stay behind to look after their two young daughters, Anisha, aged four, and 21-month-old Hafsah.

Raja and Sahil caught a flight from Manchester on February 18 and when they got to Jhelum they stayed with Raja’s mother, in a house next door to an uncle.

The male members of Raja’s family are taxi drivers and one uncle owns a car rental business. They live in a community of bungalows close together, which are contained behind high steel gates.

At around 10.30pm on Raja and Sahil’s final evening in Jhelum – March 3 – a taxi arranged by an uncle came to collect them to take them to the airport. Sahil had climbed in the back and was joined by Raja’s mother and brother who were going to see them off.

But they never made it to the airport. Raja recalled how the terrifying events unfolded...

‘As the family stood to wave goodbye outside the house, the gates to the driveway swung open and suddenly four masked men burst forward in the darkness.

‘They were dressed in black and wearing black balaclavas and gloves. They each carried large guns and wore waistcoats packed with bullets and grenades. We were terrified.

'The family clutched each other but the intruders shouted that if we moved we would be shot.

‘We assumed they were robbers. They yelled at us to lie on the ground or they’d kill us, so that’s what we did.

‘Then they opened the taxi door and grabbed my mother, who is arthritic and in pain, and pulled her out, throwing her on the ground. My brother tried to argue with them but they kicked him to the ground, too. Then they grabbed Sahil and forced him on the floor. He didn’t make a sound but looked terrified.’

Raja said they were forced to walk in single file into the house and warned that if they looked behind them they would be shot.

Then they were ushered into a bedroom, had their hands and feet bound behind them with ties and scarves and were gagged.

‘They stole our mobile phones and wallets and wanted to know where any valuables were in the house. They told us we would be shot if we refused.’

Raja said they were all kicked and slapped and threatened with further violence and death. He recalled how Saher, Sahil’s two-year-old cousin, began to cry and one of the men slapped her around the face.

The men ransacked the house, and the uncle’s property next door, for the next six hours. But they were clearly not satisfied with their haul, despite finding a large amount of cash and gold jewellery. Dragging Raja into a separate room, they confronted him using words he would never forget.

Raja said: ‘They said, “We’re going to take your son. We know you’re a businessman and we know you have lots of money.”

‘My heart pounded. I pleaded with them, telling them I was not a rich man and had no money. I was completely helpless. I started crying because I didn’t know what was going to happen. I thought, they’ve slapped a two-year-old girl and an arthritic woman. What could they do to my little boy?’

The gang then left, snatching Sahil as he slept – telling his relatives they were taking him to his father in the other room – and bolting the doors from the outside.

Raja said: ‘We managed to wriggle free and began screaming for help through the windows. Everyone was crying. My precious son was gone.’

A neighbour who heard their screams lent the family a mobile phone so they could call the police, and the taxi – a black Toyota which had a tracking device fitted – was discovered abandoned in a town a few miles away with one discarded mask and a glove.

Raja phoned his family in the UK and asked them to break the terrible news to Akila, who was alone with their daughters.

It did not take long for the kidnappers to make their first contact. At 3pm back in Pakistan – 10am UK time – they rang one of the family’s  mobile phones. It is not clear how they had the number.

Purely by chance, Raja had the phone and had been using it to keep in touch with police. He recalled: ‘They said, “We are the same people who took your son. We will ring you after dark and we will tell you how much money we want and how we want it.”

‘I started crying again. I said, “You know I’m not a rich person. It’s not possible to pay you a big amount of money.” I begged them for news of Sahil but they put the phone down.’

Raja told the police the kidnappers had made contact. Detectives were present when the gang rang again, at 11pm that night, and demanded a huge ransom for Sahil.

Raja said: ‘The man said, “I am the same person who took your son from you.” He asked for £200,000. He said he would let me know where I would have to bring it later.

‘I asked him where my son was but he just said my job was to find the money and said he’d ring again. He told me, “Don’t try to be clever.” Then he hung up.

‘I thought now there may be a chance Sahil could be killed. That is an awful thought for any father.’

For the next 36 hours, Raja heard nothing – and police had advised him not to call the numbers the kidnappers had rung from.

He said: ‘I could not eat. I could not sleep. It was totally traumatic. I was willing that phone to ring.’

Back in the UK, Greater Manchester Police had launched a major incident response and were liaising with the family, the Pakistani authorities and the Foreign Office.

But there was silence until Raja was contacted again at around 11pm on March 6. He said: ‘When the phone rang, my heart jumped. He demanded to know what had happened to the money. But I needed proof they had my son and that he was safe.’

Raja’s defiance  infuriated the gang and what came next was chilling and brutal. ‘They said they would be sending me a gift – any part of my son. They meant body parts but they didn’t say what.

'They mentioned the place where they would send it in a black bin bag, a roundabout in Jhelum city centre. It was horrifying. I was now desperate to get him back. I had to protect my son.’

The next day, the gang called and ordered Raja to take a flight back to Manchester and an hour later they rang again to reiterate their demands. Raja said: ‘They said if I didn’t do it, the things they had mentioned before would happen.’

It was at this point that Raja, becoming increasingly desperate, tried to bargain down the ransom demand. ‘I explained I didn’t have the money, I couldn’t arrange it. I asked them to give me some time to sell my car – a 2002 Vauxhall Astra worth just £1,600.

‘I told them I wasn’t a rich man, I was a jobseeker – I’m unemployed.

‘I pleaded with them to drop the money. They suggested £160,000 but even that was too much. It went down to £140,000 and I said I couldn’t manage that either.

'Eventually he said, “All right, £110,000, and if you try to ask for anything more like this it will be harmful for your son.”’

Raja booked his flight back to the UK and heard no more from the gang until he was about to board his flight on March 9 when a call came through.

‘They said they knew I was at the airport and was ready to fly. They said I had 12 hours from when I landed in the UK to arrange the money and confirm it. I wondered whether they were watching me. They seemed to know my every move. I was very upset leaving Pakistan, knowing my son was with this gang, but thought nothing of myself and only of his safety.’

Raja was met at the airport when he landed at 6.45pm UK time on March 9 by one family member. He had not told Akila or anyone else of his return or of what was happening, including the ransom demands or the gruesome threats to Sahil.

A Greater Manchester Police spokesman said Raja was sent to a safehouse.

At 9am the following day, the kidnappers rang and asked whether the money was ready. It wasn’t, but on police advice, Raja told them it was.

‘They said I’d have to come to one of a number of different countries, and suggested France, Germany, Spain and even Hong Kong.

'I told them I couldn’t travel to those places with a Pakistani passport, I only had a visa for England. They said I’d have to come where they told me and bring my wife and two daughters with me. They’d heard about my family from the media. I told them I would not put them at risk.

‘Eventually, they seemed to accept I couldn’t travel and I said I had a friend in Paris who would deliver the money. That seemed to satisfy them.’

Raja is not allowed to discuss the details of this ‘friend’ and, for operational reasons, Greater Manchester Police will not reveal the exact detail of their involvement, including what instructions they gave to Raja.

It is understood that the kidnappers’ calls were recorded by police and traced to England, Pakistan and Spain. Some had also been made from a hotel in Paris.

Thanks to extended family and friends, Raja managed to gather together the ransom demand.

He continued taking three or four calls a day from the kidnappers. The threats against Sahil became increasingly vicious. ‘They said they would cut things off my son if I didn’t do what they wanted – arms, fingers, ears. I was getting numerous calls a day asking if I had the money.’

They then made another threat to leave his body parts in a bin bag.

Raja said the kidnappers told him the money would have to be dropped off at one of two locations in Paris.

He gave them a description of his friend and what he would be wearing.

‘The kidnappers told me the drop-off would be at 4.30pm on Saturday, March 13. He would have to buy and wear a Reebok cap. He then had to follow a specified route through the streets of Paris in order to be spotted and correctly identified.’

At around 7pm, the friend made contact. ‘He just said, “The money’s dropped.”’ Raja said: ‘That was the first time I felt anything like relief since this ordeal began.’

The kidnappers then rang a couple of hours later, around 9pm.

‘They said, “We collected the money. The money is OK. We are happy about that.”

‘I said, “Listen – am I allowed to talk to my son?” But he said he didn’t know and I repeatedly asked him the same thing. I said “I’ve done everything. I’ve kept my promise. Now let my son go. It is my time to ask you – give me my son back.” ’

They said they would send an email to their contacts in Pakistan and Sahil would be released at a location to be specified. But no one rang Raja for another two days, during which time he believed his son may be dead.

Meanwhile, Akila was still in the dark. Raja only spoke to her once on police instructions and it was family members and the media who kept her up to date. Although frantic with worry as any mother would be, she says she had ‘full faith’ in her husband to find their boy.

After 36 hours, at 7pm on March 15, Raja was called by a member of the gang. Their tone had now changed, from menacing to reassuring.

‘They said I’d kept my promise and they weren’t going to do anything to him and were happy with the money.

‘They said they’d contact me with details of where to get him. After that, I felt reassured rather than threatened, as I was used to feeling.’

The call Raja had been waiting for came at 2am the following day. ‘They told me Sahil was at a high school in Dinga, an area near Kharian city. I asked him straight away, “It’s only 7am in Pakistan. Will he be safe?

He’s only five.” They said, “Don’t worry, he’s in a safe place. He won’t go anywhere else.”

‘They asked me not to involve the police and get a family member to pick him up. They said, “If you ever try to get help from the police this gang is really big. We can do anything with you in Europe and we can do anything back in Pakistan.

'You are not going to do anything against us. If we find your family go to the police, your family in Pakistan will pay for it.”’

Raja called his brother in Pakistan and urged him to pick up his son. But Sahil was not at the school the kidnappers had mentioned and he was finally found at a different school, five miles away.

Desperate for news, Raja was calling his relatives every five minutes. He remembers vividly the moment he was told his son was safe and well.

‘My brother said, “He is with me, he is safe.” I jumped up and down with joy. I rang Akila straight away and she was overjoyed. I could hear her jumping and shouting.

‘Then I spoke to Sahil. He sounded really surprised. He said, “Daddy, where are you?” I said “I’m coming

to you, don’t worry.”

‘He said, “Daddy, I’ve lost my shoes – I don’t have my shoes,” and then he told me he wanted to go out to play with Saher again.’

Akila’s first phone call with her son was similarly poignant and emotional. She said: ‘At first, he was really quiet. I kept saying “Sahil, it’s Mummy.” He just kept telling me he had some new toys. He just kept on talking and wouldn’t stop. It was so amazing to hear his voice. No one can describe that feeling.’

On Wednesday, March 17, Raja boarded a flight back to Islamabad. He describes it as the longest flight of his life. He went straight to the British High Commission where his first sight was of Sahil running towards him.

‘He was screaming “Daddy, Daddy!” I scooped him up and hugged him so tight I thought he could break. I started kissing and hugging him. Then I started crying.’

Sahil finally arrived home the next day, getting back to Oldham just after 8pm. The family had put up a Welcome Home banner along the terraced street and their home was packed with tearful relatives.

For his mother, it was a particularly emotional moment. Separated from her child for nearly a month, she had prayed for his safe return.

Akila said: ‘It was a magical moment. I hugged him and held him and kissed him. I couldn’t put him down.

‘There were television crews in the street and the house was full of people. Sahil looked bewildered and tired but he was so happy. We all were. I couldn’t stop looking at him and kissing him and holding him. It was amazing.’

The house was full of cards and flowers from wellwishers and a pencil drawing of Sahil from a school friend which read: ‘We miss you.’

Sahil has so far said little about his ordeal. He has only told his parents he was allowed to sit on a cow. Police are still investigating the case and, last week, announced they had arrested three people just outside Barcelona in Spain – two Pakistani male nationals and a Romanian woman.

It is understood French police followed them as they drove from Paris to the Spanish city and on to an apartment in Constanti, five miles from Tarragona in North-East Spain where they were arrested in an armed raid.

Two other men have been arrested in Pakistan. They have allegedly admitted a grudge against Raja’s family and are thought to be linked to them. However, Raja insists he has no idea who these men could be and what their grudge could have been.

Raja, who used to work in a takeaway food shop, and Akila, who works at an Iceland food store, were married seven years ago in Jhelum. They are cousins and it was an arranged marriage. It has been reported that their marriage is in trouble but yesterday both insisted they had a strong union.

When asked about the alleged problems and why Raja recently spent between 12 and 18 months in Pakistan, Akila said: ‘We are happily married but he went back to Pakistan to sort out his visa problems. I sent out all the documentation to Pakistan so he could process it.’

Now, the families are concentrating on making sure little Sahil makes a full recovery. Despite previously not speaking any Punjab, he now swears at them in the language and has become more difficult to control.

Yesterday, Sahil was excitable and jumped on to his mother’s knee, hiding his face and coyly smiling. A keen footballer, he raced in with a blue ball which he held on to tightly. Raja said: ‘We’re a family again. That’s the most important thing.’