Fremont businessman Qader Qudus has become a hero to many in the East Bay's Afghan and Pakistani community, although he has spent most of last year in prison. His sentencing in an Oakland courthouse Friday drew a packed house of supporters.
Qudus owns ZSQ Exchange, a hawala, or a traditional Middle Eastern money exchange. The small business was a financial lifeline between East Bay residents and their relatives in Afghanistan and Pakistan. All that ended last August when Qudus was swept up in a sting against an international heroin ring. Qudus was accused of having transferred money for the drug dealers. He was threatened with multiple life prison sentences, and his exchange was shuttered, cutting thousands off from emergency aid. Qudus also was cited for operating his business without a state or federal license. It was this charge for which he was sentenced in Oakland last week. Ironically, says his attorney Jeffrey Nevin, thanks to the toughened post-Patriot Act regulation of international money transfers, the lack of a license carries a much stiffer penalty than the other charges.
Although Nevin says his client never knowingly aided drug dealers, in order to avoid the life sentences, Qudus pleaded guilty to a money laundering charge, for which he will be sentenced in December. Since the money laundering charge carries a lesser penalty, and both sentences will be served concurrently, the Oakland judge's decision would seal Qudus' fate.
At first, it didn't look too good for Qudus, who stood quietly throughout the hearing in a tan prison jumpsuit and blue slip-on shoes, listening to his Farsi interpreter.
Although sentencing guidelines dictated that Qudus should spend about five years in prison, Nevin argued that his term should be reduced because of ZSQ's unique humanitarian mission. During the peak years of ZSQ's operation, he said, Afghanistan did not have a banking system and transfer agents such as Western Union did not have offices there. ZSQ was able to quickly get relief funds to refugees and rural people, who often did not have the identification papers or bank accounts necessary to use more traditional services. Nevin also explained that Qudus had attempted to get a license, but had been misinformed by an attorney who claimed he did not need one.
However, Judge Saundra Armstrong pointed out that it is unusual to grant a reduced sentence for prior community service and asked whether a business that took a commission from the money it transferred could really be considered a nonprofit charity. "He did not operate strictly for altruistic reasons," argued prosecuting US Attorney James Chou. "He did it for money, to pay his rent."
After more than an hour of close interrogation regarding Qudus' personal finances and his failure to obtain a license, the judge ordered a five-minute break to consider the case. Those five minutes slowly stretched into an hour, and the tension, like the temperature in the room, rose to stifling.
But when Armstrong returned, having read more information on the case and letters of support sent by Qudus' customers, the atmosphere changed dramatically. She said she found it compelling that ZSQ had started as a small business, but had begun transferring more than $600,000 a month in the wake of the September 11 attacks and the resulting US military campaign in Afghanistan. Armstrong said she believed Qudus was responding to his community's need to aid their relatives. "To many, his service was the only source they'd trust and the only one they had," Armstrong announced, concluding that Qudus had made a good-faith attempt to become licensed. Armstrong got as far as saying "The court overrules the government's objections and ..." when the whole room erupted into cheers. Security officers promptly hushed the crowd, as Qudus quietly touched his fingers to his lips to acknowledge the support.
The cheers were slightly premature -- rather than eliminating his sentence, Armstrong docked it to 27 months. Subtracting the time Qudus has already served, time off for good behavior, and the possibility of serving the last six months of his term in a halfway house, Nevin expects that Qudus may see daylight in nine months.
The judge's decision drew a mixed response among the supporters outside the courtroom soon afterwards. "I am happy, but not that much," says ZSQ employee Rabia Furmully. She points out that Qudus still has significant financial problems -- the government seized most of his assets, and he is borrowing $2,200 a month from his friends to take care of the store and his family. His supporters believe he is an innocent man who already has served too much time thanks to the government's overzealous scrutiny of money transfers to Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11. But, says Nevin, Qudus has evaded a far worse fate -- nine more months is nothing compared to Qudus' initial prospect of multiple life sentences.
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