In January this year, Delhi resident Mohammad Aamir Khan, 32, walked out of Rohtak jail after 14 years in custody. He was accused in 20 terror cases. Courts pronounced him ‘not guilty’ in one case after another. But before he was released, he’d lost everything. His father died, mother got paralysed, acquaintances deserted them and the family was stigmatised while guilty officials roamed free.
Many such cases have recently surfaced where innocents get caught in the crossfire of counter-terror and are falsely accused. They spend years in prison with no one to hear their pleas. Prominent examples are the Jaipur blasts and Hyderabad’s Mecca Masjid blast case.
Says Ajai Sahni of the Delhi-based Institute for Conflict Management, “The most significant factor is dearth of investigative capabilities.” He adds, “What’s worse, the prosecution faces direct hostility or suspicion from courts.”
But former Intelligence Bureau chief, Arun Bhagat, says “Courts are lenient as the accused have been in prison for long, at times longer than the stipulated punishment.” What if these men are simply innocent and that’s why they are acquitted? Bhagat says, “These are very important cases. No policeman will ever frame an innocent man.” Khan would certainly not buy this arguement.
Even Human rights lawyer Colin Gonsalves disagrees. He believes investigators falter for short term gains. “The police file cases against people even when they know they don’t have evidence,” he tells. Gonsalves says courts should take cognisance and in turn take action against erring officers.
Manisha Sethi of the Jamia Teachers’ Solidarity Association brought out a detailed report of the Jaipur cases. She points to a Delhi court ruling which acquitted six men of charges of carrying explosives. They were captured in the Capital allegedly after an encounter with the police. The court however stated that the story of the encounter was “concocted”. While ordering an FIR against the erring policemen, the Court observed, “They (accused) are innocent and have been framed by the aforesaid police officers to achieve personal gains and/or to settle personal scores.”
Though, efforts have been made to reintegrate such innocent men into society, that’s hardly enough except in a few cases such as the Hyderabad’s Mecca Masjid blast. “It was the first time compensation was given in such a case,” says chairman, National Commission for Minorities, Wajahat Habibullah. But the stigma associated with being called as a terrorist turns the accused into monsters in the eyes of society. “That’s why in the Mecca masjid case, we asked authorities to give character certificates to the falsely accused,” says Habibullah.
Amid debate, an intense fear of being branded a terrorist looms large among Muslims. What is a better example than Delhi’s Jamia Nagar locality where the controversial Batla House encounter happened? Municipality elections are due in Delhi and “the prominent issue in predominantly Muslim constituencies is not Bijli, Sadak, Paani. It’s rather random ‘picking up’ of innocent youth by police,” says a Delhi-based lawyer.
Indeed, apprehending terrorists and collecting evidence against them is not an easy task. But distinguishing an innocent man from a terrorist after a through investigation is not impossible either.
The wounds have not yet healed
Munawwar Quraishi, 44
Time spent in jail: Three and a half years
Detained for: 2008 Jaipur serial blast case
Released from Jaipur jail, Munawwar Quraishi is finding it hard to get back to normal. Spending more than three years in custody has left an indelible mark on him. People still avoid him. That and heavy financial distress has led him to leave his house in Kota’s predominatly Muslim colony, Waqf Nagar. Before Quraishi’s arrest, Kota DSP Nasimullah was on a witch hunt for him, and media reports didn’t help. He was dubbed a traitor, a Pakistani, a maniac, among others. Scared, he vanished. Why? “They were calling me Pakistani. So what other option did I have?” he says. On the city Qazi’s advice, he willingly surrendered himself to the police. “I wasn’t arrested,” he clarifies.
Although assured he would be let off soon, Quraishi spent 10 days in illegal detention, and was produced in court in Jaipur. Though he was later shown as arrested for involvement in the Jaipur blasts, the charges against him were related to banned organisation, Student’s Islamic Movement of India (SIMI). He was charged with organising SIMI meetings in Kota. The police claimed to seize materials like pamphlets, Urdu magazines and CD recordings of hate speeches. During the trial, the truth was revealed. “The police never read nor translated what they called Jihadi literature. The CDs were never opened.” explains Jamil Ahmad, the lawyer for the accused. Of 38 witnesses, 33 turned hostile — the rest were policemen — and claimed they never signed on as witnesses. Munawwar, in his defense says he even tried to help victims of the blast. He organised a blood donation camp in his locality. “In all, I sent 167 units of blood to Jaipur,” he says. While Munawwar was in jail, his family fell on tough times. His tailoring shop and two-storey house were sealed. His wife recollects, “The police didn’t even let me take my kid's clothes.” With tears in his eyes, Munawwar says he is particularly grateful to his friend Mangelal who supported and helped his family survive the ordeal.
Forging a brighter life and livelihood is now the topmost priority
Gulam Aslam Siddique, 32
Time spent in jail: 6 months
Detained for: Hyderabad Mecca Masjid blast case
Gulam Aslam Siddique still suffers from nightmares. He can’t forget the night of June 2, 2007 when a dozen policemen woke him up at 2 am, pushed him into a vehicle, blindfolded him and took him to an undisclosed location. For next 3 days, he was subjected to torture, mental and physical, intended to make him confess to the crime of conspiring in the Mecca Masjid blasts.
His family went from pillar to post to find him. Theysent telegrams to the Police Commissioner, DGP, Chief Minister, Chief Justice of Andhra Pradesh and the State Human Rights commission. Finally, he was produced in court on June 5 and sent to jail. The charges included criminal conspiracy, sedition, and waging war against the government He was also branded as a SIMI activist. The next six months he spent in Cherlapally jail, knowing not what was in store for him. Finally he was released after a sessions judge at Hyderabad threw out the case stating “prosecution failed to produce any legally acceptable evidence to suggest that the accused conspired for waging war against the Government of India or made any attempt to bring in hatredness against the government.” Siddique and 20 others were released. “My real ordeal began after I got out,” says Siddique, who now ekes out a living fabricating iron grills. “I was like an untouchable. Friends would avoid me, relatives distanced themselves. No one would do business with me. My landlord wanted me to vacate. I was dying a hundred deaths every day.”
But he is glad that the government saved his “izzat” by providing a character certificate exonerating him from any links with the blast.
However, he is yet to receive the R3 lakh compensation that was promised. “I am not greedy,” he says. “If I get the money I will use part of it to expand my business and also give some to a fund to help victims of the blast,” said the father of four.
— Ashok Das
Not dwelling on the past, but looking to the future
Mohammad Aamir Khan, 32
Time spent in jail: Fourteen years
Detained for: 20 blast cases across NCR
Mohammad Aamir Khan has just returned from a children’s home where he gave a talk on leading a positive life. Till a few weeks ago, he was in jail as the ‘mastermind’ in 20 cases of bomb blasts across NCR. After 14 years in jail for crimes he didn’t commit, his resilience is admirable. “I’m looking for a livelihood which gives me self respect,” says Khan. Being the sole bread winner in the family, Khan needs a job to pay back debts from fighting his case. He also needs to pay for the treatment of his 70-year-old mother, bed-ridden with paralysis, which requires around Rs 5000 per month.
Khan was a class 10th student when he was ‘picked up’ from Old Delhi’s Sadar area. But he continued his study with IGNOU in Tihar Jail. “I tried to turn the jail into a college for myself.” But, during the second year of his bachelor’s degree, Khan claims he was put in solitary custody for five months. It interrupted his studies. Now, out of jail, he wants to study further, “maybe law or journalism,” he says. “If journalism, certainly print journalism. It was my only window to the outside world for 14 years.” But, he recalls, the media once termed him ‘Pakistani’ while he was in Ghaziabad jail in 2007. “Fellow inmates taunted me saying I was a chhupa rustam but I never told them I was a Pakistani,” says Khan struggling with high blood pressure, a result of the third-degree torture he suffered.
Khan is far from defeated and wants to move on. Although, he says, the cases slapped against him were more in number than his age, he does not dwell on them. “It’s a new life to me, I am living an unbelievable dream,” says Aamir. Ask him his age he says with a slight exuberance, “just two months and a few days.”
Trying to make up for lost time
Nazakat Quraishi, 29
Time spent in jail: Three and a half years
Detained for: 2008 Jaipur serial blast case
On the night of August 24, Nazakat Quraishi, who was arrested along with others for the 2008 Jaipur serial blasts, was snuck away from the police station to a nearby forest, with heads covered. A dreaded thought buzzed in Quraishi’s mind — “It’s certainly going to be an encounter.” Eight days into illegal detention, with endless hours of questioning, pleading their innocence, yielded nothing to both sides. Perhaps, Nazakat thought, an encounter would be a relief. But that was not to be. The policemen returned them to detention. Nazakat believes, as a constable had said, that a judicial magistrate had raided the place. While in detention, Nazakat, a class 9th dropout and a motor parts dealer in Kota, was made to sign a number of blank papers. “It was as if I was applying for bank loans,” he says. Hooded and tied all along, only on the ninth day was he taken to court with seven other men. Charges were read out but it only added to the confusion. While the police claimed the Kota residents were held for Jaipur blasts, the cases filed against them said otherwise. It was rather SIMI related charges — membership and attending meetings. It left Quraishi’s family reeling as they didn’t know what to defend against.
But before his guilt or innocence was proven in court, Quraishi endured a hellish experience. He recalls how he was kept naked in a cell in complete darkness for three months. Covered with a blanket and beaten, to avoid injury marks, tied in a hunched position for long durations was a routine. The case files were called ‘files of blast conspirators’. Even the jail had “Dreaded terrorists of SIMI are housed in this jail” written at its entrance.
While he was in detention, his 52-year-old uncle was the only hope for the destitute Quraishi. Throwing into jeopardy his business of motor parts, his Uncle did all he could to get Quraishi released. Now, out of jail after more than three years, he is trying to re-establish his business. “The nightmare of jail is over now. But the terrible memories still haunt me,” says Quraishi.