The mystery of Yasin Bhatkal does not end with his capture. It only gets deeper.
Bhatkal, along with one of his key associates Asadullah Akhtar alias Haddi, was picked up by the Indian counter terror officials from Pokhra in Nepal and then formally arrested at the Indo-Nepal border on August 29 after being on the run for more than five years.
The 30-year-old who gets his nickname from the town in coastal Karnataka where he grew up has been named as the key player in more than half a dozen cases of terror by police of several states and central agencies. When he was spotted and caught at Pokhra, in an Intelligence Bureau led operation by the Bihar police, everyone thought it would lead to the closure of more than half a dozen terror cases — especially the ones that happened after 2010.
But what he has been telling his NIA interrogators over the last 24 days opens a can of worms for the Mumbai police and the Delhi police. His revelations question the Delhi and Mumbai police findings in at least four high-profile terror cases — the Diwali eve blasts in Delhi on October 29, 2005, the Mumbai train blasts July 11, 2006, the German Bakery blast of February 13, 2010 and the Jama Masjid shootout-cum-blast of September 19, 2010.
In the German Bakery blast case, a trial court has even upheld the charges brought against Mirza Himayat Baig, the lone accused who stood trial for charges levelled by the Mumbai anti-terrorism squad.
“I am the 18th victim,” Baig had told the judge who convicted him for the death of 17 people, breaking down on hearing the sentencing.
Bhatkal now claims Baig was innocent and it was he along with another IM operative Mohammad Qateel Siddiqui who planned blasts at two places in Pune — the German Bakery and Dagdu Seth Halwai Ganesh temple.
After HT reported on Bhatkal’s revelations, a news portal Gulail.com caught five witnesses of the German Bakery case on secret camera, admitting their statements in the court against Baig were made under pressure from the ATS.
Resolving these questions is necessary for the credibility of policing in India and also for reassuring the country’s Muslim minority they could not be unfairly targeted. Senior officials of both Mumbai and Delhi police that HT spoke to dismissed Bhatkal’s claims.
“The ATS chargesheet had held that the 13 accused responsible for the train blasts and the probe was 100 % correct. The IM is just following the Al Qaeda manual, according to which whenever a terrorist is caught he should strive to own up all earlier terror attacks, to discredit their probes and to get fellow terrorists freed from jails. This is exactly what Bhatkal is doing,” said KP Raghuvanshi, who headed the ATS at the time of the serial train blasts probe.
“We have not questioned Bhatkal yet as he is in the custody of the NIA. The NIA has not shared any details about Bhatkal’s interrogation. Therefore, it will be difficult to comment on the issue. We will also question Bhatkal in eight cases including the Jama Masjid case,” said SN Srivastava, special commissioner (special cell) of the Delhi police.
But investigators charging the wrong people in terror cases is not exactly unheard of. The most glaring example is of the Malegaon blasts of September 8, 2006 in which 37 people had been killed. The Maharastra ATS had charged nine Muslims in the case and later the CBI also concurred with the ATS investigation. But the arrest of alleged Hindu radical Swami Assemanand in November, 2010 gave fresh leads to the CBI blasts and the case was later handed over to the NIA for further investigation. Now the NIA has charged four Hindu radicals in the case.
What to do?
“Since the matter is sub-judice in all four cases, only the court can seek information about the revelations made by Yasin Bhatkal. The court can act suo moto as well. The other way is intervention of higher courts,” said an official of a counter terror agency requesting anonymity.
Besides, the union home ministry can also instruct further investigation by the NIA in cases wherein doubts have emerged over previous investigation. The MHA under P Chidambaram had taken a similar action in the Hindutva terror cases when a larger and single conspiracy emerged for bombings of Malegaon, Samjhauta Express, Mecca Masjid in Hyderabad and Dargah Ajmer Sharif after the arrest of Swami Assemanand.
Even Bhatkal’s lawyer has already demanded an NIA investigation in all those cases wherein his role is suspected.
(With inputs from Abhishek Sharan and Presley Thomas)