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Presumed Guilty: After 14 wasted years in prison, life begins anew
PRAYAAG AKBAR  NEW DELHI | 19th Feb 2012

Mohammed Aamir at his home in Sadr Bazaar. Aamir spent 14 years in jail before being acquitted in January this year. Photograph: ABHISHEK SHUKLA

n the night of 20 February 1998, in the Sadr Bazaar area of Delhi, a young man walked to the neighbourhood hakeem seeking treatment for a persistent kidney stone problem. The 18-year-old had just said his namaaz at the Madrasahwaali Masjid and, in pain, decided to walk across the desolate marketplace — by day this is one of the busiest spots in the city, but at night it empties like a sieve — even more so in the '90s, when Indian retail did not shriek with the vehemence of today.

As the boy walked he noticed an unmarked white Maruti Gypsy sidle up along the kerb behind him. It moved slowly, prompting him to quicken his pace, though he continued to walk, staring ahead. The Gypsy overtook him and then, without warning, a pair of hands shoved him in the back. He raised his hands to protect himself from falling, but before he knew it he'd been hauled into the Gypsy. Blindfolded, hands tied and mouth gagged in a matter of seconds, trapped in a mélange of elbows, insults and accents, he was driven to a destination 40 minutes away and deposited in a room. Here he was routinely beaten, tortured, fed at the rarest possible intervals, and made to sign blank papers and disclosure agreements. There was no question of providing access to legal representation.

The boy left that room seven days later, when he was taken to Delhi's Tees Hazari Court to be charged with 17 cases of murder, terrorism and waging war against the nation. By the time he was acquitted of the charges brought against him — the High Court ruled that any evidence connecting the accused to the bombings was "woefully absent" — Mohammed Aamir was 32 years old. He spent 14 years "ground in the mortar and pestle" of the Indian justice system (main kanoon ke chaal mein pis kar aa raha hoon). In the years before he could once again walk into the modest room in Azad Market where he was born, his father had died, his mother left mute and paralysed by a stroke.

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Mohammad Aamir gives this account of the events of that night and the following years. The version presented by the investigative authorities to the courts is remarkably different, starting with the date Aamir was purportedly taken into custody (seven days of detainment without being presented to a judge is a violation of one of the foundational writs of the Indian Constitution, Habeas corpus; it is regularly argued in cases like this that security agencies misrepresent the date they picked up a prisoner so they are not in violation of this writ).

28 February 1998, when Aamir was produced before the Tees Hazari Court, the investigative authorities said they picked him up with an array of incriminating evidence on his person. One wonders why an 18-year-old terrorist mastermind would carry to a rendezvous — amidst a Webley & Scott revolver, live cartridges, American currency and diaries with details of explosive materials — his ration card, birth certificate, school character certificate, school identity card, and even marksheets from Class 5 and 7 from his school in Farashkhaana.

As has been reported in Two Circles (the website that broke the story) and The Hindu, the police version is pocked with allegations that only throw up more questions — the reason the cases were summarily dismissed by almost every judge they came before. The police claim that they came upon Aamir and the youth he planned the 17 bombings with, Shakeel, via two Bangladeshis they had been tracking. This version holds that they saw these two Bangladeshis leave Aamir's house in Sadr Bazaar and so followed them to Old Delhi Railway Station, where they rendezvoused with Aamir and Shakeel (Shakeel, the other alleged "mastermind", was found in 2009 hanging from the ceiling in his cell in Dasna Jail; later, Jail Superintendent V.K. Singh was charged with his murder). The prosecution did not make clear why Aamir and Shakeel would choose to rendezvous in a crowded railway station if the Bangladeshis were already staying with them.

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Aamir was driven to a destination and deposited in a room, where he was routinely beaten, tortured, fed at the rarest possible intervals, and made to sign blank papers and disclosure agreements.

In 1996 and '97, a rash of "low-intensity" terrorist attacks in the National Capital Region had security agencies worried by their failure to find conclusive leads in any of the cases. There is some indication that the attacks were part of a concerted campaign; each explosive device had similar constituent ingredients. The investigators alleged that Shakeel and Aamir admitted in their respective disclosure statements to making these bombs in a small factory in Pilakhua. Yet, as the courts have now recorded, the public witnesses present during the raid on the factory in Pilakhua flatly refused to support the prosecution. Chandra Bhan, the prosecution's "star witness", told the court that he was taken to Chanakyapuri police station and made to sign blank papers.

Of the 17 cases brought against Mohammed Aamir, he was found Not Guilty at the Sessions Court level in 12. He was found Guilty in three cases, for which he was given life imprisonment in one (FIR 631) and 10 years in the two others. These immediately went on appeal to the High Court. On 4 August 2006, Justices Sodhi and Bhasin of the Delhi High Court, pronouncing on the case for which Aamir was given life imprisonment, said: "The prosecution has failed miserably to adduce any evidence to connect the accused-appellant with the charges framed, much less prove them. Accordingly, the appeal is allowed and the judgment of conviction...set aside."

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This, sadly, was not the end of Aamir's legal trouble. In 2007, when he was close to completing the 10 years mandated (notwithstanding that both cases remained on appeal), two more cases were brought to trial, this time for bombings in Rohtak and Ghaziabad. Proper procedure suggests these cases should have been initiated when Aamir was first incarcerated, in 1998. Holding off until 2007 meant he was forced to remain in police custody even after he completed his ten years inside, something his lawyer, N.D. Pancholi, terms "customary mischief-making". It was only in January 2012, when those cases were completed — he was found Not Guilty again — that he was allowed to return home.

By coincidence, the same week Aamir was released, The New Yorker published Adam Gopnik's remarkable report on patterns of incarceration in the United States ("The Caging of America", 30 January 2012). From the introduction: "A prison is a trap for catching time. It isn't the horror of the time at hand but the unimaginable sameness of the time ahead that makes prisons unendurable for their inmate. What prisoners try to convey to the free is how the presence of time as something being done to you, instead of something you do things with, alters the mind at every moment." Aamir's 14 years in prison, on charges refuted adamantly from the outset, devastated his life and ambitions in ways hard for us to comprehend.

Sitting in the same small room with cracking walls in Sadr Bazaar that the authorities called a terrorist hideout and he calls home, Aamir tells the tale of his incarceration: "After my first appearance, at the Tees Hazari court in '98, I was put on remand for 10 days, so I was taken to a police station. After they had elicited 'admissions' that I was involved in all the blasts in the NCR between '96 and '98, I was moved from station to station, still on remand, because they wanted to file FIRs in each of the cases. This went on for two and half months. When finally in April or May I was sent to Tihar Jail it came as a huge relief. To be in police remand is the worst — first they do their 'questioning', where I'm sure you know what all takes place. In jail it is better. In the police station, even at night, the guys guarding your cell will come and abuse you, kick you around a bit, call you 'katua'.

"I then spent almost nine years in Tihar Jail, where I managed to do some reading about my legal circumstances." He pulls out two tattered books, the Constitution of India and a book of legal norms, both in Hindi, and a purple folder of see-through plastic filled with carefully highlighted and annotated legal papers. Picking up the Constitution, Aamir says: "The thing is, I still have a lot of faith in this document. I have not been to college, but I have read this book from cover to cover and I know it can protect those who need it. It is people who ruin what this book stands for. Actually, even that is too harsh. During my 14 years inside the system I met all kinds of people — some people were very good to me. Some were terrible. There are all kinds of people on earth, that is something I have learned.

"Then I was sent to Ghaziabad's Dasna Jail, which was even tougher. I spent more than three years there, and perhaps 90% of the time was spent in high-security, normal procedure for people booked in terrorism cases. You have to spend 22 out of 24 hours in absolute isolation. For months on end you barely communicate with anyone at all."

Gopnik quotes in his article an essay Charles Dickens wrote in 1842 upon visiting a solitary confinement wing in an American prison: "I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain, to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body: and because its ghastly signs and tokens are not so palpable to the eye and sense of touch as scars upon the flesh; because its wounds are not upon the surface, and it extorts few cries that human ears can hear; therefore I the more denounce it, as a secret punishment which slumbering humanity is not roused up to stay."

The effects of this prolonged — and, the courts now agree, unjust — detainment on Aamir are discernible during longer conversations. He has a stilted way of talking, and his face will periodically break into a nervous smile. If making a long point, he sometimes loses the thread as he speaks. "I've noticed these since I got out. The doctor tells me I have high blood pressure now, and that I should try and get psychiatric counselling. I lose my temper from time to time" — this is harder to imagine, as he is exceedingly polite with us — "and shout at my nephew. It's been hard not to be able to talk to my mother. I would like to hear from her lips that she is happy I am out. But, bechaari, she cannot say anything."

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This past Wednesday, in the sylvan quiet of the Gandhi Peace Foundation, I meet N.D. Pancholi, the High Court lawyer arguing Aamir's two pending appeals. It is perhaps an appropriate venue — J.P. Narayan was arrested from this spot in 1975, at the outset of the Emergency.

"It doesn't matter who is in power," he says. "The government very rarely exercises the control they should. They heed the security agencies, with their ears and eyes shut to anyone else — instead of directing them, the government is directed."

"I have been working on cases like this for 20 or so years now. Aamir's case is sad, but one of many." Ferozekhan Ghazi, Aamir's lawyer at the Sessions Court level, agrees: "After '95, these cases began to proliferate. I've worked on somewhere between 30 and 40 cases of this nature and have won acquittals in most. Remarkably, every Kashmiri whose case I've worked on has been acquitted — boys who came to the capital as businessmen and carpet sellers, picked up by the authorities and left to languish in jail for years."

So is the situation as bad as ever? Pancholi says things have become better since POTA [the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act, 2002] was repealed. "Now most cases will be charged under the Unlawful Activities Act, or what Aamir was charged of, waging war against the nation. The number of cases might have reduced, but it is still a prevalent practice."

Mohammed Aamir was also lodged in Delhi’s Tihar jail.

On a national level, the most deleterious consequence of such mala fide practices is their undercutting of resources, manpower and intelligence that should be used to prevent acts of terrorism in India. One tactic is to paint certain communities in a threatening light; Azamgarh was first pointed to as a hotbed of terrorist activity. Then, just after the High Court blasts in September, reports in all the leading newspapers, citing unnamed security sources, said Madhubani (in Bihar) was India's new "breeding ground of terror". Within weeks, Delhi Police arrested seven young Muslim migrants from Madhubani and charged them with involvement in the blasts. All seven, including the alleged "mastermind" were released in January, after the National Investigative Agency demanded the right to question them and exonerated them of all charges.

Muslim activists argue that such wanton arrests do little to curtail terrorist activity, and investigators ignore more dangerous threats to the integrity of the country. One activist, who asked for anonymity, said: "Can someone tell me why the Hizb-ut-Tahrir, an organisation that has been responsible for deaths over the world, is allowed to hold meetings in the heart of Delhi, on Lodhi Road? This organisation demands an Islamic kingdom uniting all Muslim countries. Indian Muslims have never espoused such politics — this is a genuinely worrying development. And our security agencies know all about them, yet don't stop them from meeting. Why is that?"

All the while, the Congress party continues to play its insidious double game with the Muslims of India, on the one hand sending stooges in skullcaps to places like Azamgarh to talk of tears shed and sorrows appropriated, on the other allowing the varied wings of its security forces to freely indulge in a deadly regime of religious profiling.

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From the same purple folder containing his legal documents Mohammed Aamir pulls out a sheet of paper and hands it to me. "While I was in Ghaziabad prison, I won a competition for essay writing. I wrote on Mahatma Gandhi — I had just finished reading Experiments with Truth — and I beat every other prisoner in UP who took part. They took me to the Central Jail in Lucknow, where the Superintendent gave me Rs 200 and a T-shirt. I know these do not seem big things, but when you are in prison, the Superintendent is the badshaah, and we are all his ghulaam. If the badshaah says one good word to you, you feel great. Here, on that day, he talked to me with respect, even treated me as an equal."

It is haunting, this eagerness Aamir has to impress upon me his patriotism and respect for government authority. This system proscribed an extended and systematic reversal of his most basic human rights, yet Aamir speaks with the fervour of one who has tasted its bitterest truths. It is clear he cannot countenance another encounter. Perhaps this is one way to birth patriotism. I feel a sudden urge to throw his words in the face of every stalwart who can casually question the fidelity of 150 million citizens of India.

"I tried to spend my time in prison constructively," he says. "There are so many bad influences, but I tried to read and learn as much as I could. I kept faith that once I was out of this mess I would get a good job. That my country would once again treat me as its own."

 
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