Innocence Network: After freedom, the fight for justice
Wahid Shaikh is a 40-year-old teacher in Mumbai’s Abdus Sattar Shuaib Primary School. He started working in 1999 but he is still new here, familiarising himself with the staff and students. Shaikh was away for a decade, a period from which he carries memories of a broken arm, being blindfolded for long stretches, and nights of mental and physical trauma.
Shaikh was in prison since September 29, 2006 on the charge of harbouring some of the accused in the June 2006 Mumbai train blasts that killed 188 and left 829 injured. “I was in custody for three months before I was finally sent to jail,” he recalls. “There, I got to know the charges against me for the first time.”
Prison is where Shaikh met 12 other inmates who had also been accused of the crime. Their experiences of being tortured into admitting guilt were horrifying similar to his own. “That is when we made up our mind to fight this injustice and not agree to any falsehood thrust upon us, whatever the degree of torture,” he says.
It was a long wait. Shaikh was released in April, 2015, after a special court acquitted him of all charges. Always innocent, now free again, his life is far from the one he dreamed of in prison. The blindfolds have triggered glaucoma in both eyes and he’s progressively losing his sight. “I have to use two eye drops thrice a day. Each container costs Rs 500 and lasts about ten days,” he says. He ends up spending Rs 6,000 on medicines every month.
Shaikh’s memories of torture are laced with something more potent, a conviction to fight for justice that eludes him and the inmates still behind bars. “It is baffling that no one is pulled up despite case after case indicating that innocent people have spent years in jail and faced torture,” he says. “There is no reprieve for us either,” he says.
Upon release, he has worked alongside organisations like the Jamiat Ulema-I-Hind, to fight a legal battle for the other accused. In 2015, Suhail KK, an activist with the research and advocacy group Quill Foundation, introduced Shaikh to the Innocence Network, a collective inspired by similar initiatives across the world that offers pro bono legal aid for those wrongfully imprisoned, which was then taking shape.
To highlight the plight of those who have been wrongfully prosecuted, the network held its first tribunal in October last year. Fifteen victims from across the country shared their testimonies with a panel that included academics like Nandini Sundar, chairman of the 20th Law Commission of India, Justice AP Shah and filmmaker Saeed Akhtar Mirza among others.
A forthcoming study by the Quill Foundation on terror prosecution in Maharashtra since 1993, finds that more than 460 people accused of terrorism have been declared innocent after spending an average of three to six years in prison. The study found that both the judicial process and the conviction rate in terror-related cases has been very low: only 42 of 93 cases filed since 2001 against the Students Islamic Movement of India (Simi, with more than 200 accused), have been heard and concluded. Of these, only three saw convictions and 39 have resulted in acquittals.
Suhail, who is also a core member of the network, says that the aim is to build a comprehensive legislative framework to compensate and rehabilitate the wrongfully prosecuted. The second edition of the tribunal will be held in Calicut on March 11.
Shaikh, meanwhile, has recorded his experiences in jail and custody in his book, Bey Gunah Quaidi, which he will release on March 1. “It is not just my story but the story of what all the 13 accused in the case had to go through,” he says.
Delhi-based activist and academic Manisha Sethi, who is involved with Innocence Network, says that it is looking to incorporate psychological counsellors to help freed victims rebuild their lives. “When they come out, the exonerees are a psychological wreck and it is important they get some kind of help immediately,” she says. “They will also be better placed to cope with the intense pressure caused by surveillance after release.”
It’s a move that should come from the government, believes Shaikh. “The state gives compensation and rehabilitation for Left wing extremists and even separatists when they surrender. So why then is there no policy for the innocents?”