They are our own Gitmos. Where, far away from the prying eyes of the law, ‘enemies of the state’ are made to ‘sing’. Life inside India’s joint interrogation cells can scar people for life. THE WEEK investigates
By Syed Nazakat
Little Terrorist, as the intelligence sleuths came to call him, turned out to be a hard nut to crack. No amount of torture would work on 20-year-old Mohammed Issa, who was picked up from Delhi on February 5, 2006. The Delhi Police believed that he had a hotline to Lashkar-e-Toiba deputy chief Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhwi, who later masterminded the 26/11 attack on Mumbai. At a secret detention centre in Delhi, the police and intelligence officers tried every single torture method in their arsenal—from electric shock to sleep deprivation—to make Issa sing. He stuck to his original line: that he had come from Nepal to visit a relative in Delhi. Only, they refused believe him.
According to the police, the youth from Uttar Pradesh, who had moved to Nepal in 2000 along with his family after his father, Irfan Ahmed, was accused in a terrorism case, returned to India to set up Lashkar modules in the national capital. More than six months after he was picked up, the police announced his arrest on August 14. He has since been shifted to the Tihar jail. His lawyer N.D. Pancholi said Issa was kept in illegal custody for months. If not, let the police say where he was between February 5 and August 15, he challenged.
Issa could have been detained in any of Delhi’s joint interrogation centres, used by the police and intelligence agencies to extract precious information from the detainees using methods frowned upon by the law. As one top police officer told THE WEEK in the course of our investigation, these torture chambers spread across the country are our “precious assets”. They are our own little Guantanamo Bays or Gitmos (where the US tortures terror suspects from Afghanistan and elsewhere for information).
Not many admit their existence, because doing so could result in human rights activists knocking at their doors and bad press for the smartly dressed intelligence men. It is a murky and dangerous world, according to K.S. Subramanian, Tripura’s former director-general of police, who has also served in the Intelligence Bureau. “Such sites exist and are being used to detain and interrogate suspected terrorists and it has been going on for a long time,” he told THE WEEK. “Even senior police officers are reluctant to talk about the system.” So are people who have been to these virtual hells that officially do not exist.
THE WEEK has identified 15 such secret interrogation centres—three each in Mumbai, Delhi and Jammu and Kashmir, two each in Kolkata and Gujarat and one each in Rajasthan and Assam. (One detention centre that is shared by all security and law enforcement agencies is the one in Palanpur, close to the Indo-Pak border in Rajasthan.) Their locations have been arrived at after speaking to serving and retired top officers who had helped set up some of these facilities. Those who have spent time in these places had no idea where they are. They were taken blindfolded and were allowed no visitors. The only faces they got to see were those of the interrogators, day in and day out.
The biggest of the three detention centres in Mumbai, the Aarey Colony facility in Goregaon, has four rooms. The Anti-Terrorism Squad questioned Saeed Khan (name changed), one of the accused in the Malegaon blasts of September 2006, here. He was served food at irregular intervals (led to temporary disorientation) and was denied sleep. Another secret detention centre maintained in the city by the ATS at Kalachowky has a sound-proof room. Sohail Shaikh, accused in the July 2006 train bombings, was held here for close to two months. “He was kept in isolation for days together,” said an officer. “He crumbled after being subjected to hostile sessions. Intentional infliction of suffering does not always yield immediate results. Sometimes you have to wait for many days for the detainee to break. It is a tedious process.” The smallest of the three facilities at Chembur has just two rooms.
Parvez Ahmed Radoo, 30, of Baramula district in Kashmir, was illegally detained in Delhi for over a month for allegedly trying to plot mass murder in the national capital on behalf of the Jaish-e-Mohammed. The Delhi Police’s chargesheet says he was arrested from the Azadpur fruit market in Delhi on October 14, 2006. But according to Parvez’s flight itinerary, he travelled from Srinagar to Delhi on September 12 on Spice Jet flight 850. The flight landed at Delhi airport at 12.10 p.m. He had to catch another flight at 1.30 p.m. (Spice Jet flight 217) to Pune, where, according to his parents, he was going to pursue his Ph.D. But he never boarded the Pune flight as he disappeared from the Delhi airport.
Parvez wrote an open letter from the Tihar jail, where he is currently held, in which he said he was arrested from the airport on September 12 and kept in custody for a month. Apparently, he was first taken to the Lodhi Colony police station and then to an apartment in Dwarka, where electrodes were attached to his genitals and power was switched on. (Delhi’s secret detention centres are located at Dwarka in south-west Delhi, the Interstate Cell of the Crime Branch in Chanakyapuri in central Delhi, and the Lodhi Colony police station in south Delhi.)
“After my arrest on September 12, I was taken to Pune, where I was shown pictures of many Kashmiri boys,” Parvez said in the letter, which is in the possession of THE WEEK. “They wanted me to identify them. As I didn’t know any one of them, they brought me to Delhi again and threw me into the torture chamber of Lodhi Road [sic] police station. They took off my clothes and started beating me like an animal, so ruthlessly that my feet and fingers started bleeding. I was later forced to clean the blood-stained floor with my underwear. They gave me electric shocks and stretched my legs to extreme limits, resulting in internal haemorrhage. I started passing blood with my urine and stool. Later I was shifted to one flat in Dwarka. From the adjacent flats, voices of crying and screaming had been coming, indicating presence of other persons being tortured.”
Throughout his detention, wrote Parvez, he was asked to lie to his parents that everything was fine. In the letter he also gave the mobile number from which the calls were made—9960565152. His family is trying to collect the call site details of the number to prove his illegal detention.
Delhi-based journalist Iftikhar Geelani, who spent nine days in the Lodhi Colony police station after his arrest in 2002 on spying charges, is yet to get over the traumatic experience. “There are lock-ups with such low ceilings that a person will not be able to stand,” he said. “There is an interrogation centre within the police station where people are brutally tortured with cables, and some are completely undressed and abused. They also have a facility to raise the temperature of the cell to a point where it is unbearable and then suddenly bring it down to freezing cold.”
Assistant Commissioner Rajan Bhagat, spokesman for the Delhi Police, denied the existence of such facilities. “Nobody ever asked me the question [about secret detention centres],” he said. “We don’t operate any such facility in our police stations.”
But Maloy Krishna Dhar, former joint director of the IB, confirmed the existence of secret detention centres in Delhi and other parts of the country. He was convinced that detention outside the police station and torture are an inevitable part of the war on terrorism. “Now I would never dream of doing the things I did when I was in charge,” said Dhar. “But security agencies need such facilities.” Interrogating suspected terrorists at secret detention centres, he said, is the most effective way to gather intelligence. “If you produce a suspect before court, he will never give you anything after that,” he said. In other words, once you record the arrest you are within the realm of the law and you have to acknowledge the rights of the accused-arrested and contend with his lawyer.
An officer who worked in one of the detention centres admitted that extreme physical and psychological torture, based loosely on the regime in Guantanamo Bay, is used to extract information from the detainees. It includes assault on the senses (pounding the ear with loud and disturbing music) and sleep deprivation, keeping prisoners naked to degrade and humiliate them, and forcibly administering drugs through the rectum to further break down their dignity. “The interrogators isolate key operatives so that the interrogator is the only person they see each day,” he said. “In extreme cases we use pethidine injections. It will make a person crazy.”
Molvi Iqbal from Uttar Pradesh, a suspected member of the Harkat-ul-Jihadi-Islami who is currently lodged in Tihar, was held at a secret detention centre for two months according to his relatives. They alleged that during interrogation a chip was implanted under his skin so that his movements could be tracked if he tried to escape. “He fears that the chip is still inside his skin,” said one of his relatives. “That has shattered him.”
Kolkata has its own Gitmos in Bhabani Bhawan, the headquarters of the Criminal Investigation Department, and the Alipore Retreat in Tollygunj, a large bungalow that is said to have 20 rooms. They were bursting at the seams at the height of the Naxalite movement, but are more or less quiet now. “A large number of innocent people, as well as suspected terrorists, have disappeared after being taken to such secret detention centres,” said Kirity Roy, a Kolkata-based human rights lawyer. “Their bodies would later be found, if at all, in the fields.”
That was how militancy was tackled, first in Punjab and then in Kashmir. Today no secret prison exists in Kashmir officially after the notorious Papa-2 interrogation centre was closed down. But secret torture cells thrive across the state. The most notorious ones are the Cargo Special Operation Group (SOG) camp in Haftchinar area in Srinagar and Humhama in Budgam district. Then there are the joint interrogation centres in Khanabal area of Anantnag district and Talab Tillo and Poonch areas in Jammu region. Detentions at JICs could last months. Lawyers in Kashmir have filed 15,000 petitions since 1990 seeking the whereabouts of the detainees and the charges against them without avail.
The most recent victim of the torture regime was Manzoor Ahmed Beigh, 40, who was picked by the SOG from Alucha Bagh area in Srinagar on May 18. His family alleged that he was chained up, hung upside down from the ceiling and ruthlessly beaten up. He died the same night. Following public outrage, the officer in charge of the camp was dismissed from the service in June.
Maqbool Sahil, a Srinagar-based photojournalist who was held at Hariniwas interrogation centre for 15 days, says it is a miracle that he is alive today. “If you tell them [interrogators] you are innocent, they will torture you so ruthlessly that you will break down and confess to anything,” he says.
Human rights organisations are understandably concerned. Navaz Kotwal, coordinator of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, said that there should be an open debate on the illegal detention centres. “The US had a debate on the Gitmos. Our government should come forward and respond to these allegations,” he said.
No one wants to compromise the nation’s safety, but the torture becomes unbearable, and questionable, when innocent people like the 14-year-old boy Irfan suffer (see box on page ). The security of the country and its people is important and terrorism should be crushed at all cost. But the largest democracy in the world should also ensure that human rights are not violated.
Dhar defended the secret prison system, arguing that the successful defence of the country required that the security establishment be empowered to hold and interrogate suspected terrorists for as long as necessary and without restrictions imposed by the legal system. “The primary mission of the agencies is to save the nation both by overt and covert means from any terrorist threat,” he said. “But to keep the programme secret is a horrible burden.”
with Anupam Dasgupta
(The Week, July 12, 2009)
INTERVIEW//K.S. Subramanian, former director general of police, Tripura
“It is a murky business”
By Syed Nazakat
Former director general of police, Tripura, Dr K.S. Subramanian, can be called an insider. He has served in the Intelligence Bureau, worked as director in the research and policy division of the home ministry and has been chief of intelligence in the troubled northeast. In an interview with THE WEEK, he shares his knowledge about the illegal detention centres in India. He is frustrated over the shadowy work of some police officers and over incidents like the killing of 59 innocent people, which the police called a naxal encounter. He recalls how a senior IPS officer shouted at ‘naxalites’ in a conference and said, “When I hear you people talk, I wish I had brought my revolver!” Excerpts.
There are allegations that suspected terrorists are being detained illegally in and out of police stations and tortured.
Unfortunately, priority is given to peace and order at the cost of law and justice, which might have led to the emergence of such facilities.
Have you come across such facilities during your service?
It is likely that such sites do exist and are used to detain and interrogate suspected terrorists. Perhaps they have existed for long. However, the Union home ministry is handicapped with regard to the information it receives on many issues of internal security. The IB, manned entirely by the IPS at the top, and the state police agencies are its main source of information. Often, their reports are biased and inadequate for policy formulation. I can cite many instances. In terrorist-related cases, the police may feel an incentive to describe people as terrorists and kill them for professional reasons and career advancement.
Who controls these illegal detention centres? What was your experience in the home ministry?
It is a murky business. Senior police officers would be hesitant to talk about the system in operation. The ministry of home affairs does not directly handle such operations; they are the task of agencies like the RAW and the IB. Public awareness about such activities can help check such illegalities, but you know that recently even agencies of advanced democracies such as the US have come to adverse notice for running such centres. President Obama has been courageous about admitting the unethical nature of such facilities in the US and trying to close them down. There is scope for a healthy debate on such issues in a vibrant democracy such as ours.
Many die inside these torture chambers.
Last year, the NGO People’s Watch brought out a disturbing report on police torture, which showed, after an extensive study in several states, that about 1.8 million people, most of them belonging to SC/ST communities, minorities and women, are victim to police torture every year in India. Shockingly, there has been no official refutation of this important report so far. I remember when I was director in the Union ministry of home affairs [between 1980 and 1985], there was a series of incidents in a north Indian state in which, according to the press, a large number of so called naxalites were killed in police action. There was uproar in Parliament. The state police and the central IB maintained that only 12 people were killed, and that all of them were naxalites.
However, when the state chief secretary was asked to come to the Union home ministry for a discussion, he frankly admitted that no less than 59 people were killed in these incidents and that none of them was a naxalite! Most of those killed were members of a local peasant organisation fighting for social justice under the Constitution and other laws of the land.
Many argue that to ensure peace, the country requires that the security establishment be empowered to hold and interrogate suspected terrorists for as long as necessary and without restrictions imposed by the legal system. Do you agree?
I know there is the fear of terrorism, and it’s a different world. But maintaining our moral compass during these difficult times, and the integrity of who we are as people, is enormously critical. So to me, this isn’t just about illegal detention. It’s about the policies still in place that can contribute to establishment of our Gitmos.
How can the police deal with terrorism and at the same time uphold rule of law and human rights?
There are set rules for the police to follow. But the problem is that there is a tendency among some officers to believe that while dealing with suspected terrorists, they are not obliged to follow constitutional methods. Our leaders may say we don’t believe in torture, but many in our intelligence and police agencies think there is a place for torture in the investigation of cases, especially terrorist related. There is a need for attitudinal change in many police officers.
(The Week, July 12, 2009)
By Syed Nazakat in Delhi
The playful spark of a 14-year-old is missing in Irfan’s eyes. Instead there is helplessness, pain, horror and a lurking fear. The dark shades could make him anything—a crusader, a criminal or plain timid. The training ground was a forlorn torture chamber somewhere in Gujarat.
The boy was picked up on May 25 last year allegedly by the Gujarat Police, who were in fact looking for his father, Mohammed Azhar. Irfan still remembers the white Tavera (GCIG-4522) that screeched to a halt in front of him as he was trying to cross the road outside his shop in Seelampur. Two men got out, held a pistol to his head and pushed him into the car. Later, they pinned him down with their feet, kicked him in the torso and slapped him several times. And when he tried to speak, he got a sharp jab in the ribs.
Lying on the floor of the car, the boy had no idea where he was being taken. His captors drove whole day and night and finally he was pulled out from the car into a detention centre, which had two black cells. He was dumped into one of them. There were no windows in the cell, yet from the honking of the vehicles and the occasional noise of a crowd, he guessed the place to be not far from the city.
The detention was almost a Guantanamo or an Abu Ghraib from his narration. His interrogators wore civilian dress, but were near cannibals in attitude. Irfan was interrogated by a tall person, whose name he doesn’t remember. “The man would brutally beat me up and tell me, ‘As long as your father does not surrender, we will not let you go’.”
Back home, Irfan’s mother, Tasleema, was frantically searching for him. Fortunately, his friends had seen the number plate of the Tavera. The family complained to the Seelampur police station, and three days later, Tasleema was told that her son was in the custody of Gujarat Police in Ahmedabad.She then filed a habeas corpus petition before the Delhi High Court, which directed the police to release the boy. Thus, after 10 days of detention, Irfan was brought back and released. On the court’s direction, the Seelampur police have lodged an FIR against the Gujarat Police.
Irfan’s tiny body is now a shambles. His mother says she was shattered when she heard about the torture her son had to bear. “Since his release, he is being treated for abdominal pain and discomfort,” she says. The boy’s ordeal has not ended yet. His family gets threat calls from the Gujarat Police, warning them not to appear before the court. Irfan’s father hasn’t yet returned home, making his family prone to more police harassment.
A day before the last hearing in the case, the police raided his home at 3 a.m. “We have lodged a report against the Gujarat Police,” Tasleema says. The Seelampur police station refused to comment on the case, but confirmed that an FIR has been filed against the Gujarat Police.
We got to know of the depth of Irfan’s fear only when we got up to leave. With tears in his eyes, he pleaded for our help. “Please save me from the police,” he says. He fears they might any day return for him.
(Name of the boy has been changed to protect identity)
(THE WEEK, July12, 2009)
Fifteen days of horror
By Maqbool Sahil
Once I was inside my cell, I wondered aloud: Where am I? A voice filtering through the slit in the steel door told me that I was in the Hariniwas interrogation chamber in Kashmir. I was picked up on September 16, 2006, by the Counter Insurgency Kashmir [a special wing of J&K Police that deals with terrorism-related cases] which accused me of spying for Pakistan. My family was not informed about my arrest.
When the interrogation started, I was least prepared for the ordeal. They bombarded me with questions: Who else is working with you for Pakistan? To whom are you sending pictures from Kashmir [he is a photo-journalist]? When they did not get the answers they wanted, the torture intensified. I was subjected to sleep deprivation and was denied food for the first three days. I was kicked and beaten with a rubber baton. They then chained my hands and left me hanging from the top of a door. They told me in no uncertain terms that unless I confessed that I was spying for Pakistan, I would not see my family again. I cried often. Sometimes I thought I would die in that dark torture cell and no one would ever know about it.
On the fifth day, my feet were manacled and I was ruthlessly beaten up. I then heard somebody outside say, “Don’t worry, I will make him speak.” I peered through the slit in the door and found that it was Senior Superintendent of Police Ashkhoor Wani, who headed the CIK. As a journalist I knew him for years. He was notorious but I had never imagined that one day I would become his prey.
The torture started afresh. My hands were tied behind with a rope, one end of which was rolled over a metal pipe fixed to the ceiling. They pulled the rope and I was hanging in mid-air. It was very painful. I felt as if my brain was going to burst. Every time I was subjected to this torture, I collapsed and lost consciousness. The torture would then stop, only to restart when I regained consciousness. When they tired of it, they stretched my legs wide and the balls of the joints were displaced. I could not walk properly for six months after that.
There were over 30 people detained there. I didn’t know where they were from. But they all were terrified and silent. After 15 days, the CIK prepared a dossier on me and I was detained under the Public Safety Act for over three years. I was released in January after the police failed to press charges against me in court.
The detention facility has since been shifted to Humhama area in Budgam district.
As told to Syed Nazakat