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In the name of fighting terror

Sep 04, 2008

A people’s tribunal in Hyderabad in southern India brought in testimonies of victimisation of the Muslim community by state authorities in the guise of fighting terrorism. Organised by human rights bodies ANHAD, PEACE and HRLN, the tribunal findings demand immediate attention and introspection, reports OneWorld South Asia.

Every person who is arrested and detained in custody shall be produced before the nearest magistrate within a period of twenty-four hours of such arrest excluding the time of such journey from the place of arrest to the court of magistrate, and no person shall be detained in custody beyond the said period without the authority of the magistrate.
                                             – Article 22, Constitution of India

Hyderabad: On September 8, 2006, on the holy day of ‘Shab-e-Barat’, Shafiq Ahmed, 41, and his family decided to go place a wreath on his father’s grave after his morning namaz, as on any other jumma day. A resident of Malegaon, a city in northwest Maharashtra once known for its flourishing power loom industry, Shafiq owned a chemist shop a hundred feet away from the town’s Mushawarat Chowk. Bada Kabristan, where his father’s grave lay, was just a short distance away.

This morning he was accompanied by two of his sons, the eldest Sajid, and little Sumaid, and his nephew Shahbad. Laughing and chatting about Sajid’s trip to China the following week, where he had secured admission to study medicine, they drew close to the Chowk.

Terror strikes

Moments later, a loud blast engulfed Shafiq and his family in smoke and chaos. The small group got parted in the melee of screams and noises.

Victims

Shafiq’s brother Shakeel, who was walking ahead of them and had already crossed the Chowk rushed back. On seeing Sajid’s bloodied unconscious body, he picked him up and rushed to the city’s Wadia hospital in a rickshaw.

In a cruel twist of fate, Shafiq meanwhile chanced upon the dead body of Shakeel’s son Shahbad in the same hospital.

Terror struck this Muslim-dominated city as a bomb first went off around 1.50 pm outside Bara Kabristan, followed by another inside its gate. The next blast took place around a nearby mosque. The last bomb went off at Mushawarat Chowk. All explosives were allegedly rigged to bicycles, killing many and injuring hundreds of those gathered at the burial ground and those making their way to the mosque for their mid-day prayers.

…and strikes again

For Iqbal Ahmad Makhdoomi, 60, retired teacher of Mathematics, terror struck again when the Anti-Terrorist Squad (ATS) came looking for his son Farogh Anwar. Farogh, 34, was arrested on November 6, 2006 for alleged complicity in the serial blasts.

Farogh, a practicing doctor of alternative unani medicine, is religious-minded, vouches his father. Iqbal also claims his son has been falsely charged and has been tortured in jail. Having never missed any of the court hearings of the case, Iqbal last spoke to his son in jail a month back. “My son reads his medical books to refresh his mind. He says Allah is testing us, and we must be patient,” says a worn but undefeated Iqbal.    

Iqbal’s words of faith in his son can be taken as a case of blood speaking for blood. But Shafiq and Shakeel Ahmed, brothers who had lost each other’s sons in their arms, also express unflinching belief in Farogh’s innocence when asked of his possible involvement in the terror blasts.

Victim2

For young Salma Bano, 21, terror paved its way into her life when her husband of three years Mohammad Zahid was picked up by the police for questioning and never returned. Zahid, 26, an Imam who taught namaz to children in their village Yavatmal was charged of the Malegaon blasts.

“My husband is a good man,” says Salma, also adding that the charges are false as he was present at the village mosque for the friday prayers on the day of the blasts. Zahid has now been in jail without bail for two years. Salma cannot afford the fees for a lawyer. 

Unholy scapegoats

Shafiq and Shakeel Ahmed, Iqbal Makhdoomi and Salma Bano were among many others who had come to Hyderabad, capital of southern state Andhra Pradesh, to give their testimonies at a people’s tribunal.

‘Holy Cows and Scapegoats’ A People’s Tribunal on the Atrocities Committed against Minorities in the Name of Fighting Terrorism was organised by human rights groups ANHAD (Act Now for Harmony and Democracy), PEACE and the Human Rights Law Network (HRLN) from 22-24 August 2008 at the premises of Urdu daily Siyasat.

Hyd Tribunal

The three-day tribunal recorded testimonies of over 40 cases from across the country, in particular from Maharashtra, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Rajasthan, revealing cases of arrests and harassments of innocent young Muslims on charges of being involved in various terrorist acts.

Jury members included retired judge of AP High Court Justice Sardar Ali Khan; retired Chief Justice of Sikkim High Court Justice S.N. Bhargava; human rights lawyer and activist KG Kannabiran; rights activist and scholar Asghar Ali Engineer; Supreme Court advocate Prashant Bhushan; writer Ram Puniyani; former vice-chancellor of Lucknow University Rooprekha Varma; and editors Lalit Surjan and Kingshuk Nag.

In most cases, the jury noted that the police did not show such ‘arrests’ until many days, in gross violation of the law, and did not even inform many of their families.

victim3

Many were tortured in police custody and made to ‘confess’ and sign blank papers, and were subjected to humiliation by the police on religious grounds.

Even when victims are later acquitted, they are not compensated, the jury said. No action is taken to hold concerned police officials accountable, particularly for the allegations of torture routinely practiced by the police and even in judicial custody.

The media also came under sharp attack by the jury members for having forsaken objective, impartial and fact-based journalism and mere parroting of charges and allegations made by the police, thus destroying the lives and reputations of many who were later found to be innocent.

Attack on civil liberty

On May 18, 2007, a powerful blast rocked the biggest mosque in Hyderabad, the Mecca Masjid, close to the famed historic Charminar, leaving many injured and dead. At the time of the blast more than 10,000 people were inside the mosque premises for their Friday prayers.

Three months down, following bomb blasts at the city’s open air auditorium at Lumbini Park and the popular Gokul Chat eating joint in August, Ravi Chander, an advocate, was appointed by the State Minority Commission to investigate the state of detainees arrested in connection to these cases.

While talking with the accused youth – all from the Muslim community – Chander discovered that they were subjected to torture (citing hangings by wrists and ankles, bodily abrasions and electric shocks) by the police for a period of six months. Later the police confessed that none of those detained were involved in the blasts.

Sharing his experiences at the tribunal, Chander cited police insensitivity and their casual take on civil liberty as a matter of great concern. This concern was also noted by the tribunal jury as leading to impunity among police officials and resulting in the callous victimisation of innocent persons of a particular community.

“You are poor; you are a Muslim; you are a terrorist. The consequence could be that all of these three sentences can be prophetic,” cautioned Chander.

Road to perdition

Shafiqur Rahman Mahajir is an angry man. A senior advocate at the Hyderabad Court, he presented at the tribunal revealing documentation on the alleged police firing on an ‘unruly mob’ in the aftermath of the bomb blasts at the Mecca Masjid. “The police fired unprovoked,” he said, “displaying prejudice and callousness.”

Claiming deep complicity at the highest levels between the judiciary and the police, he said emphatically, “A subsequent cover-up is always deliberate. It’s never accidental.”  

But for Shabnam Hashmi, the force behind the tribunal, the solution has to be sought within the Constitution.

Shabnam Hashmi

Following the testimonies, the tribunal has put forth a set of 13 recommendations, including an appeal to the State Human Rights Commission, National Human Rights Commission and State Minority Commission to exercise suo moto action in taking up such cases and in awarding compensations.

Other recommendations include holding police officials accountable in cases of mala fide; paying adequate compensation to victims; providing trial courts with medical officers to examine allegations of torture in police or judicial custody.

The tribunal also called for disallowing the controversial narco analysis in investigation procedures without consent, and getting blank papers signed by victims under force.

The tribunal urged that India must immediately sign the International Criminal Court Treaty known as the Rome Statute which has been ratified by most countries.

The deep sense of victimisation felt by the community in the guise of fighting terrorism was palpable among the victims and their families present at the tribunal. The “undeclared emergency” against the country’s Muslim population, in the words of jury member Kingshuk Nag, is a road to perdition indeed. It is now time to attend to the fear that this can lead to a strong sense of insecurity and alienation among a large part of the country’s people.

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