To some at Yale, he was a brilliant and charming student who had overcome a life of adversity to earn a bright future in politics or neuroscience. But to others, his attitude toward female classmates was sometimes a source of concern.
The man in question is Saifullah Khan, a 25-year-old native of Afghanistan who came to Yale after spending his senior year of high school at the Hotchkiss School, a boarding school in Connecticut. Today, Khan faces three felony charges and one misdemeanor charge for allegedly raping a classmate at Yale on Halloween night 2015. He was suspended from Yale on Nov. 9, 2015, and arrested by police three days later. On Monday, as his trial enters its second week, Khan’s defense team is expected to bring its first witness to the stand.
As a student, Khan, who was a cognitive science major, had a range of interests. He was a member of the Jewish secret society Shabtai and served as an executive board member in the Muslim Students Association in 2012. He was also a moderator of the Overheard at Yale Facebook group and a “big sib” in Trumbull College, where he met with first years to help them adjust to Yale. In an interview with the News last fall, he said he participated avidly in residential college intramural competitions.
A year before he was arrested for sexual assault, Khan co-founded an organization called Prologue Strategies — the “first Yale student-based think tank,” according to another co-founder, Hamed Zarghoon ’15. In a profile of the group published in the New Haven Register at the time, Khan said Prologue Strategies was founded in the hopes of doing “great things for this country and in the international arena.”
Khan’s uncle Arsala Jamal, who served as the governor of two provinces in Afghanistan and the acting minister for border and tribal affairs, was killed in a suicide bombing at a mosque in Afghanistan in October 2013. In an op-ed in the News published that month, Khan recalled feeling “paralyzed” and “hopeless” after hearing the news. But he also said his uncle’s courage inspired him to return home despite the dangers.
“The realization that someone who wishes to lead the country could be killed adds a new coat of confusion to my considerations of going back home,” Khan wrote. “But I don’t want to succumb to my trepidation.”
Several students who interacted with Khan while at Yale said he was known for his political ambitions and connections, both on campus and in Afghanistan. After serving as a Trumbull representative on the Yale College Council, Khan considered a run for YCC president in the spring of 2014.
But he ultimately decided not to run after the YCC’s Council Elections Commission contacted him about allegations of sexual misconduct against him that had been brought to the council’s attention. Khan’s lawyers declined to comment on any of the allegations of sexual misconduct in this story.
Then-YCC President Daniel Avraham ’15 told the News last fall that during these elections he “heard very concerning rumors alleging sexual misconduct, and immediately reported them to the Dean of Student Affairs, Dean Marichal Gentry, and the Title IX coordinator.”
The events of that YCC election also led Khan to confront Sara Miller ’16 — a former photography editor for the News and a rival candidate for YCC president who brought the concerns about Khan’s conduct to the YCC administration — in a closed-door YCC meeting that Khan requested from Avraham.
In a Facebook post last fall, after the News reported that he was going on trial, Miller said Khan used the closed-door meeting to accuse her of leveling false accusations of sexual misconduct against him in an effort to bully him out of the YCC presidential race. The News confirmed her version of events with another YCC representative who was in the room during the meeting. Current YCC President Matt Guido ’19 called the reports of the meeting “shocking and appalling.”
Miller told the News she was concerned because she had heard in early 2014 — more than a year and a half before Khan was arrested on charges of sexual assault for the Halloween incident — that multiple female students had considered reporting Khan for sexual misconduct.
In another Facebook post last fall, a current Pierson student said Khan behaved inappropriately with her while she was a first year. The woman said Khan led her to his room after he made advances on her in the Trumbull basement.
“He told me about his cognitive science work, how he liked to ‘control people’s minds,’” she wrote in the post. “He tried — more forcefully — to make advances, and I tried to leave. I was scared to offend him, and agreed to go and ‘study’ at his office.”
The woman told the News that when she was in Khan’s room, he asked her to lie on his bed because it was a “special mattress” and suggested she remove her clothing to “feel the effect” of it, which she declined to do. Later, she said, he offered her drugs that he said would “help [her] think” and proposed that they take a walk in the woods.
Another Yale student who knew Khan through mutual friends said Khan was “handsy” with her even while the person she was dating was present in the same room.
“I was extraordinarily uncomfortable being alone with him,” said the student, who asked to remain anonymous to protect her privacy.
However, the student emphasized that Khan remained “respectful” and that she did not believe he had any malicious intent. She said Khan was a “generally good guy” who could be awkward around women and sometimes failed to understand “American culture.”
The student also described Khan as a “lively intellectual” who was always up for political debate.
“He had a pure heart intellectually speaking,” she said. “He was very curious.”
She added that Khan was interested in theology and that he attended many Jewish events even though he was not Jewish.
Two of Khan’s little sibs in Trumbull — then first years who were paired with Khan — said they do not remember anything out of the ordinary about him. Similarly, students who met Khan during the Orientation for International Students in 2013 and 2014, when Khan served as a counselor for the program, did not recall anything unusual about his behavior.
Philipp Arndt ’16, who served as an Orientation for International Students counselor alongside Khan in 2014, said he appeared “pretty social, but not in any unusual way’” when he met him during the program. And Yupei Guo ’18, who attended Orientation for International Students in the summer of 2013, said Khan seemed “harmless” when she first met him — although her initial assessment changed when she heard about his alleged misconduct.
“I was shocked that he was allowed to become a counselor to mentor first years, some of whom were minors at the time of their participation in the orientation program,” Guo said.
Other students spoke highly of Khan. Jackson Blum ’15, who met Khan in Trumbull and later became his friend, said that Khan was “a great guy,” who was both friendly and felt an “immense sense of gratitude” for being able to leave a war-torn country and come to Yale.
One Yale alumnus who was in several classes with Khan and spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect his privacy called Khan a “smart, charismatic big talker who people wanted to invest in.”
Several of Khan’s old friends at Yale declined to comment. Hammaad Adam ’16 said his current perceptions of Khan are colored by the allegations of sexual misconduct against him.
Other students emphasized that whether or not his peers viewed him in a positive light should have no bearing on how the allegations against him are perceived.
“I don’t think his perceived character while at Yale or his involvement in the community should be relevant to his rape trial,” former Trumbull classmate Vasilije Dobrosavljevic ’17 said. “I’m glad these rape allegations are receiving the serious attention, legal and otherwise, that they deserve, something that’s unfortunately often not the case on college campuses.”
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Clarification, Mar. 5: The headline of this article has been updated to more accurately reflect the content of the reporting.