NEW DELHI – A 51-year-old American citizen has been held in an Indian jail for more than three months after she arrived at a border crossing without a passport or visa.
Farida Malik, who lives in California, was traveling from Kathmandu, Nepal, to New Delhi by bus in July, court documents say.
At the Indian border, she told officials that she had left her passport in Kathmandu and showed them a photo of it on her phone. Border personnel said they checked her passport in their system and found that she had not applied for an Indian visa.
Rather than return Malik to Nepal, they arrested her and charged her with violating India’s visa and passport statutes. Her trial began this week.
Malik sounds “very anxious” and “desperate,” said her brother Nauman Malik, who also lives in California. He was able to speak to her briefly on Tuesday for the first time since her detention.
Malik forgot her passport at her hotel in Kathmandu, her brother said. He arranged to have it delivered to her lawyer in India in August.
Malik was born in Pakistan and immigrated to the United States as a teenager. She became an American citizen in 1992, her brother said. She worked in information technology until four years ago, when she left her job to care for her mother who had been diagnosed with lung cancer.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. embassy in New Delhi referred queries about the case to the State Department in Washington.
“We are aware of the arrest of a U.S. citizen in Uttarakhand, India,” said a State Department official who spoke on the condition of anonymity in adherence with internal policy. “We take seriously our responsibility to assist U.S. citizens abroad, and are monitoring the situation.”
U.S. embassy officials have visited Malik three times, according to her brother, to check on her welfare.
India’s Ministry of External Affairs and Ministry of Home Affairs declined to respond to questions about Malik’s situation, including whether her birth in Pakistan was a factor in her case.
Malik’s detention appears highly unusual. The State Department declined to say whether there were previous cases where Americans had been jailed after arriving at the Indian border without a passport or visa.
All Americans must apply for a visa before arriving in India. On its website, the State Department says Americans traveling to India without a valid passport and visa “may be denied admission” to the country.
Chandra Shekhar Kargeti, one of Malik’s lawyers in India, said he could not recall a similar case. His previous clients charged with violations of India’s visa and passport laws were Pakistani citizens – most of them shepherds – who had unwittingly crossed the border into India.
Ashok Kumar, a senior police official in the state of Uttarakhand, said that he, too, was unaware of a case comparable to Malik’s but that authorities had acted properly. “If you do not have a valid travel document you will be arrested under the Passports Act and the Foreigners Act,” he said. “The court of law will now decide.”
A Bollywood aficionado who hoped to launch a singing career, Malik had spent time in India in the past. She completed a three-month course at the Asian Academy of Film and Television outside Delhi, an official at the school confirmed.
On her latest trip abroad, Malik traveled to Indonesia and Nepal before attempting to visit India. On her Facebook page, she posted photos of a sunset in Bali and waterfalls near the Nepali city of Pokhara.
Malik’s brother Nauman Malik said his sister suffers from a herniated disk and has complained of the cold in the jail, which is located high in the foothills of the Himalayas. He recently took a leave of absence from his job as a software product manager to work full time on securing her release. He has started an online petition and contacted numerous senior government officials in the United States and India seeking their help, so far to no avail, he said.
Courts have rejected Malik’s application for bail, and her lawyer said the trial could continue until the end of November. If convicted, she faces a maximum of five years in prison.
For Nauman Malik, the thought of his sister spending more time in jail is unbearable. “She made a mistake,” he said. “She’s not a criminal.”