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Fresh investigation will help innocents accused of terrorism

By Syed Nazakat

It was Shab-e-Barat, the night of salvation, one of the holiest in the Muslim calendar. Mohammad Taufeeq was standing outside a mosque in Kota with a cousin when cops picked them up at 11 o’clock on August 16, 2008. The police had information that a suspect in the Jaipur bomb blasts case had rented a room at Taufeeq’s house. In the police station, Taufeeq found his father, Dr Ishaq Qurashi, in the lockup.

In the next few days, 10 other villagers, who had met or seen the suspect, were arrested, and all of them were taken to the Special Operation Group headquarters in Jaipur. At the interrogation centre, said Taufeeq, he was stripped and hung upside down, and his father was stripped to his underwear and repeatedly kicked and slapped. They were asked who had planted bombs.

As the interrogators failed to make Taufeeq confess, he said, the cops took the father and son to an isolated place. Taufeeq said A. Ponnuchami, inspector-general of Rajasthan (who is currently in jail for a custody murder in another case), put a pistol to his father’s head and threatened to shoot him if Taufeeq did not confess. Taufeeq signed four blank sheets of paper, which the interrogators allegedly later filled with details. All the men arrested from Kota spent three years in interrogation centres and jail, suffering daily torture.

On December 10, 2011, a court acquitted all of them, saying they had been wrongly jailed. “It is not easy to be called a terrorist and then have a normal life,” said Taufeeq, who was studying medicine at Rajputana Unani Medical College in Jaipur at the time of his arrest.

India has had a spate of terrorism-related arrests since the 9/11 attacks in the US. In 2010, according to official figures, 1,012 people were arrested in India for being members of the banned Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) and Indian Mujahideen. Maharashtra topped the list with 356 arrests, followed by Gujarat with 316. About 100 people have been arrested after that, said K.S. Dhatwalia, home ministry spokesperson. “Seventeen accused have been convicted in various states,” he said.

Many who were arrested, like Taufeeq, did not have any terrorist link, and the Supreme Court has decided to examine a petition that all terrorism cases from 2002 be re-investigated by a special committee of Supreme Court judges and prominent lawyers.

A home ministry report says SIMI has been trying to revive itself through front organisations since its ban in 2001. “The front organisations of SIMI are state specific and are being used for carrying out its activities including collection of funds, circulation of literature of cadres and regrouping of its cadets,” says the report.

The report lists 51 front organisations. Many of them, however, are registered and some are even funded by state and Central governments. Kurwai Sports Welfare Academy in Madhya Pradesh, for instance, is occasionally funded by the Nehru Yuva Kendra Sangathan, an autonomous body under the Union ministry of youth affairs, and the state government’s sports and youth welfare department. “I’m shocked to know that we’re under surveillance of the intelligence agencies,” said Mohamed Yaseen, chairman of the academy, who is also a panchayat secretary.

Student Welfare Trust, the only organisation from Delhi on the list, is actually a publishing house called New Crescent Publishing Company. “We publish books on Islamic literature and science, and textbooks for schools,” said Mohammad Shoib, who has been working there since 1984. “Assam Board of School Education buys some three lakh books from us.”

Some organisations on the list do not even exist. Seven of them are from West Bengal and many of 23 organisations from Kerala are also nonexistant.

The goof-ups occurred because the security agencies “had a shortage of Urdu language experts and officers who understand Muslim rituals and culture,” said a home ministry official.

Affidavits accessed by THE WEEK shows that the security agencies cited flimsy evidence against the accused. They even furnished children’s magazines in Urdu and Mirza Ghalib’s poetry to establish terrorist links. The Madhya Pradesh Police, in a written statement to the court, cited a book on the third caliph, Hazrat Usman Ghani, a book on the caliphate and an article on camel sacrifice as evidence to arrest many people. In another terrorism-related case, what was described as jihadi literature was the classic Panchatantra.

People arrested in terrorism cases often find it difficult to get a lawyer to defend them, and many cannot afford one either. According to a study by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, 25 per cent of Muslim prisoners in Maharashtra do not have lawyers. The All India Jamiat Ulema-I-Hind has established a legal cell in Mumbai to help the poor people accused in terrorist cases in the state.

Some 280km north of Mumbai is the Muslim-dominated town of Malegaon. The textile hub, with 2,00,000 power looms, makes around 10 million metres of cloth a day. The once-peaceful town is on the edge of radicalisation because of police atrocities.

Take the case of Gufran Ahmed Abdul Aziz, 31, a power loom worker. On June 2, 2001, he saw at the city square a group of people shouting slogans against Russia’s invasion of Chechnya. “I was curious to hear what the speaker was saying,” recalled Gufran. Suddenly, a police party emerged and grabbed some of the gathering, including Gufran.
The police booked him for giving an inflammatory speech and accused him of being involved in anti-national activities. Eleven years later, a court acquitted him of all charges. “Whenever a blast or terrorist attack happens anywhere in the country, the cops would pick me,” said Gufran.
In Malegaon, there are horrifying tales of police atrocities on everyone’s lips. But Hemant Karkare, the Anti-Terrorism Squad chief who died in the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks, has a memorial in the town. It was Karkare who exposed the real culprits behind the 2006 Malegaon bomb blasts which killed dozens of people.

Noorul Huda, 30, said he owed his freedom to Karkare. Huda was the first person to be arrested after bombs exploded in a mosque in Malegaon. He was jailed and tortured for months. In 2008, Karkare investigated the case and found that the real culprits were a Hindu right-wing group. Huda and seven others were given bail on November 16, 2011. “There is no case against us. We’ll be acquitted,” he said.

The Supreme Court’s decision to examine the petition for fresh probes in the terrorism cases is a ray of hope for many wrongly accused people. It would also stop radical groups taking advantage of the situation, and help the system regain some of its lost credibility. “If anyone is guilty of terrorism and bloodshed, he should be dealt with harshly,” said Gulzar Kazmi of All India Jamiat Ulema-I-Hind. “But you can’t arrest innocent people just because they belong to a particular religion.”

(October 7, 2012, THE WEEK)

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