By Vidya Subrahmaniam
Thanks to a Sessions Court judgment and a searing Minorities Commission report, we now know how young, innocent Muslim boys became accused in the Mecca Masjid terror case.
A lot has changed in the nearly four years since the peace of Hyderabad was shattered — first by the May 2007 Mecca Masjid blasts and, three months later, by the twin blasts at the Gokul Chat Bhandar and Lumbini Park.
Some 20 Muslim boys who were picked up randomly in the aftermath of the blasts and charged with waging war on the nation, have won their freedom. A new term, Hindutva terror, has gained official recognition. The Andhra Pradesh police who, by instinct, habit and training, chased after Muslim “masterminds” and connected the dots between Muslim terror groups, have learnt the hard way that terror does not always have to have the “jihadi” prefix. Indeed, fresh trails have opened up, suggesting that the Muslim boys were deliberately framed.
And yet, these are at best cosmetic changes that have brought no tangible relief to those falsely implicated in the blast cases. For many of them, the feeling of living on the edge continues; the court may have acquitted them but the label of “terrorist” remains as does the lurking fear that the reprieve is temporary, that the cycle of police visits, interrogation, torture and incarceration can re-commence anytime — if there is a fresh terror attack or even if there isn't.
For Mohammad Rayeezuddin, who smartly chatted up customers at Hyderabad's grandest jewellery showroom before being picked up and tossed into jail, the experience was a life-altering one. Two facts went against him: he was witness to a shoot-out outside the office of the Director-General of Police in 2004 and he lived in the same locality as Shahid Bilal, a key terror suspect.
The dragnet began to close in on Mr. Rayeezuddin, now 28, after the Mecca Masjid blasts. First came the summons from the Special Investigation Cell, which put him through the wringer on Bilal's whereabouts, network and his specific role in the Mecca Masjid blasts. With the Gokul-Lumbini twin blasts, Mr. Rayeezuddin made the transition from “terror suspect” to “terror accused,” going through the inescapable drill of being blindfolded, shunted between shadowy farmhouses and tortured, before being formally arrested and fleetingly produced before a magistrate. Mr. Rayeezuddin was picked up on August 31, 2007 but typically in the police records, the arrest date is shown as September 6, 2007. He was released on conditional bail on February 14, 2008. And on December 31, 2009, the Court of the VII Additional Metropolitan Sessions Judge cleared him and 20 others of all charges. But the freedom has been only in a manner of speaking, because, as Mr. Rayeezuddin says, “ hum utthe baitthe dar me rahte hain” (I live in constant fear of the police). The men in uniform turn up often to give him company, when it is the anniversary of the Babri Masjid demolition, when a terror alert has been sounded, or when there is trouble anywhere in the city.
Scarred for life
Mr. Rayeezuddin lost his job the day he visited the special cell. Today, scarred for life and stigmatised for having once been charged with terror, he sells watermelons on the pavement. Others acquitted along with him feel similarly wrecked: the torture marks have faded but the memories have not. To compound the injury, there has been much promise but no action on compensating and rehabilitating the young men. Chief Minister Kiran Reddy and others in the Congress have offered to apologise for the injustice, which seems so much a mockery when the perpetrators of the injustice have not been prosecuted and punished. Says Mr. Rayeezuddin: “Please tell the Chief Minister that we have forgiven him. Now will he please punish those policemen who so brutally and calculatedly turned us into terrorists?”
The plight of the boys was formally recorded in an interim report as early as September 2007 by L. Ravi Chander, Advocate Commissioner for the Andhra Pradesh Minorities Commission. Mr. Ravi Chander, who visited the blast suspects in the Cherlapally jail, was left so shattered by the experience that he began his final report, submitted in September 2008, with a poignant quote from Vikas Swarup's debut novel, Q&A, made later into Slumdog Millionaire. In the story, the teenage protagonist is picked up from the Dharavi slums for winning a quiz show. But arrests are an everyday affair in Dharavi, and so the boy concludes that even if he had “kicked and screamed, protested his innocence, and raised a stink,” the neighbourhood would not have lifted a finger to defend him.
“Unfortunately, sometimes life imitates fiction,” Mr. Ravi Chander noted in his report, going on to detail the shocking lack of procedure in the detention of Mr. Rayeezuddin and others: “[The boys] reiterate with telling consistency the now familiar story of arrest without warrant, arrest without informing the kith and kin, being taken away to unknown places, torture, etc … Typically a pigment on skin reflecting minor electric shocks are visible. While time heals the physical wounds, [they have] left an indelible impression on the psyche of the persons.” It was like a macabre replay as each boy spoke — of being detained without knowing the charge, of extended periods of torture, of indifferent magistrates who somehow always missed the distress signals from the prisoners, of being forced to confess to terror plots and of having to sign on blank papers.
Mr. Ravi Chander's report reiterated the procedure laid down by the Supreme Court for arrest and detention, including maintaining records of the time and date of arrests along with the names of officers executing the warrants; preparing a memo of arrest, signed by a witness preferably from the detainee's family and countersigned by the detainee; ensuring a tri-weekly medical examination of every detainee and keeping a memo of major and minor injuries, again countersigned by the detainee. The Supreme Court held failure to comply with the requirements to be punishable with departmental action and contempt of court proceedings. Mr. Ravi Chander concluded his report with this chilling passage: “To counter terrorism and “counter terrorism” [by the State] are not one and the same … It is clear that all the victims belong to a single community and mostly to a single economic class. This may be insufficient to place the burden surely at a single door-step, namely the police. This however surely tells a pattern. A seriously dangerous pattern.”
Mr. Ravi Chander's findings came as a surprise to civil rights activists. Because, as he himself laughingly told The Hindu, “I am not viewed as a Muslim-friendly person, as I had fought on the opposite side on the issue of Minorities reservation.” But this fact has only enhanced the credibility of the report.
If Mr. Ravi Chander underscored the arbitrariness of police detentions, the court proceedings turned out to be a stunning exposé on the state of Indian policing and the investigation-prosecution apparatus. The burden of the two charge sheets filed by the police was that Shahid Bilal (listed as Area Commander of Jaish-e-Mohammed/HuJI, and believed to have been killed since) and his associates conspired to wage war on the nation by organising bomb blasts in Hyderabad. In this they were helped by many others, including Mr. Rayeezuddin. And yet, astonishingly, neither charge sheet linked the accused specifically to any of the three bomb blasts. While the first was filed against Bilal and his associates, the second named two other key actors, Abdul Sattar and Abdul Khadri. Having learnt bomb-making in Bangladesh, Sattar and Khadri helped Bilal with the logistics. Mr. Rayeezuddin and others pitched in by promising “their solidarity and support for the jihadi movement and the protection of Muslims all over the world”
ith Bilal presumed killed, the second charge sheet came up in the court, which threw it out, quashing the charges against all the accused. Against each of the 21 accused, the charge sheet had shown invariably the same recoveries: “Two VCDs containing seditious clips, rebellious Islamic activities, Urdu seditious matter and Muslim fundamentalism.” But not one of the panch witnesses produced by the prosecution accepted that he was present when the recoveries were made. Panch witness Mohammad Saleem testified that the police wrote up the seizure mahazer (memo) after seizing the papers and CDs from a fellow police inspector. In one instance “Urdu seditious literature” turned out to be in English. The inspector who framed the charge sheet confessed to not being able to read Urdu. “Except the alleged confessional statement rendered to a police officer, there is no other evidence available connecting the accused with the theory of conspiracy to wage war,” the judge noted.
Earlier, in December 2008, another Hyderabad court cleared some among the same group of Muslim boys of the charge that they had conspired to kill a local Bharatiya Janata Party leader, Sampath. In that case the police inspector had translated “Arabic literature” into English without knowing any Arabic. The prosecution witness could not even confirm the existence of Sampath!
The BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh are furious that Aseemanand and some other Hindutva names have emerged in recent terror investigations. The parivar has every right to demand that due process be followed in their cases. However, one wishes they had been similarly concerned about young Muslim boys jailed and charge sheeted without evidence.
Source: The Hindu