Costly Acquittals

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In the 1996 Rajasthan bus-blast case, police booked, among others, four Kashmiris – arrested from Kathmandu and Gujarat. A trial was launched and the court vindicated the prosecution by convicting the accused. Truth prevailed 23 years later when the High Court found no shred of evidence in the prosecution’s story. Though the four men are back home, nobody is asking whether the police wanted to help real perpetrators by involving innocents or it was just a case of manufacturing scapegoats, reports Shefali Rafiq

On the quiet afternoon of May 22, 1996, a powerful bomb blast ripped through Lajpat Nagar, one of Delhi’s commercial hubs. As the dust settled, 13 people had died and 39 injured. The entire marketplace resembled a war zone with smouldering parked vehicles billowing black smoke. The images that newspapers carried from the scene added to the anger across India.

Well before Delhi Police could start an investigation, another blast took place on a passenger bus in Samleti village in Dasua (Rajasthan). It left 14 people dead and 37 injured. These back-to-back blasts shocked the security grid. Everyone had questions but answers were nowhere.

Around 1000 km away, across India’s friendly border in Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital city, Ali MehmoodBhat, then 25, a Kashmiri carpet dealer, was at his shop. Lacking any idea about the happenings in Delhi, a place he had left two years back, he was busy in his own routine.

Two days after the twin blasts, few men came to his rented accommodation in Kathmandu. Accompanied by Nepalese cops, the men in civvies took him along.“That time, I was cooking my meals,” recalls Bhat vaguely.

“We will ask you some questions and let you go,” the men told him. “They took me to a room where they asked me questions. I answered everything politely.”

After the questioning was apparently over, Bhat remembers being taken to a police station in Kathmandu. “When I boarded a waiting vehicle, I saw some Kashmiri traders like me already inside,” recalls Bhat. He had seen most of them around in the market but hardly knew anyone by name.

Later Bhat came to know that two of them were MirzaNisar Hussein and Lateef Ahmad Waja, both carpet dealers, who had also been picked for questioning. Hussain was arrested from a street and taken to a room where he was shown a picture and asked if he knew the guy in it. It was the photograph of Hussain’sneighbour . “Once I confirmed that I know the person whose picture was shown, I was driven to my rented room,” recalls Hussain.

Like Bhat and Hussain, Waja too was picked from his rented room located in the same neighbourhood.

There were around 15 of them and they were taken to Kathmandu Police Headquarters. From there, they were driven to Somali border, and after a night halt at Gorakhpur, they were finally brought to Delhi.

In Delhi, Hussain, then 17, was taken to a juvenile home. Bhat and Waja were taken to Lodhi Road and handed over to Delhi Police Special Cell.

“There are two kinds of juvenile homes,” said Hussain. “One, where above 18 detainees are kept, and the other, where below that age are kept. I was 17, but police had mentioned my age as 19. So I was taken to the first one and kept with above 18 detainees.”

At the police station, a few of them were let off after initial questioning.

Hussain was one of the 12 people who were eventually charged in the Samleti case. So far, seven have been acquitted – six of them last week and one in 2014. Five men including the Kashmir trio Latif Ahmed Waja, 42, Ali MehmoodBhat, 48, MirzaNisar, 39, Abdul GaniGoni, 57, from Bhaderwah and Rayees Beg, 56, from Agra were acquitted of all charges and set free. Beg was incarcerated since June 8, 1997, and all others were imprisoned between June 17, 1996, and July 27, 1996.

In September 2014, the court of Additional District Judge, Bandikui, in AlkaBansal had given death penalty to a UP resident, Dr Abdul Hameed and awarded life sentence to six others including four residents from Jammu and Kashmir. Less than five years later, the Rajasthan High Court acquitted them of all charges after the prosecution had failed to provide evidence of a conspiracy. Not a single shred of link could establish their involvement with the main accused or to the crime.

Javed Khan, another Kashmiri, however, remains in jail, facing trial for the Lajpat Nagar bomb blast. There were six Kashmiris accused of the Delhi blast but five of them were acquitted of all charges almost seven years ago.

While these young men have come home after 23 years, they are unable to adjust with the life that has gone by. They are now picking up understanding what the mobile phone is all about.

In the 1990s, when Kashmir closed for months and nobody knew what is happening the next morning, a lot of business families started migrating to other places to earn the bread and butter. These included brothers Ali MehmoodBhat and his elder brother, Zaffar Ahmad Bhat, who had gone to Delhi in the 1990s to establish their carpet business. The business did not go well so they went to Nepal in 1994. “I never went back to Delhi after that,” says Bhat. The first time he came to Delhi was when police arrested him.

Bhat’s elder brother, Zaffar, was taken by the Kathmandu Police and set free 40 days later.  ArshidHussainBhat, 45, Ali’s younger brother, was taken by the Jammu and Kashmir Police and released after 23 days. “I wasn’t questioned nor was I interrogated,” Bhat said.

Bhat was formally charged for the Lajpat Nagar blast. In 2014, he was given life sentence for the blast. His father, Sher Ali, followed his case and had a firm belief that he would come home one day. He did not lose his hope even when his son was awarded the life sentence.

In 23 years, Bhat did come home thrice on a literal day long paroles – in 2005 and 2006 – when his uncles passed away. Later in 2007, Bhat came to see his ailing father for five hours, who finally died on June 14, 2016.

“What these 23 years took from me most importantly was that I couldn’t even offer the funeral prayers of my father who kept struggling for my release till his last breath, “regrets Bhat.

This is something that was on full display when he finally arrived after being acquitted. “He went straight to his parent’s graveyard, offered prayers and then came home and sat in the corner,” said Arshid, his younger brother.

Wearing a light yellow KameezShalwar, Bhat was surrounded by people, his family, relatives and friends. He kept on wiping his sweat by a handkerchief amid sobs and tears.

Relatives coming to see him had to introduce themselves as he struggled to recognize each of them. “I feel like a stranger in my own house. I have to be introduced to my own people,” Ali said.

In his 23 years of absence, his three sisters were married and have raised their own families.

In these years, Bhat wrote the Quran twice on his diaries inside the jail which he has brought along with him. “I might have read almost ten thousand books that my father used to send me during this time,” says Bhat.

What makes the crisis different is that Bhat says it was his fate. Now, he only wants to live a simple and peaceful life.

“My brothers will eventually have to take care of their own families,” Bhat said. “I have to re-start myself from zero. I would not mind even if I have to sell tea on the streets.”

In the 1990s, when Nisar’s father passed away, he decided to help his elder brother, MirzaIftikarHussain, in the carpet business. Then 17, Nisar went to Kathmandu where their business was.

On that fateful day in 1996, Nisar went to a nearby telephone booth to make a call back home. After the call was over, he was on his way home when a group of strangers surrounded him. They asked him questions and finally took him in a police vehicle. At some place, they showed him a photograph and asked him to identify.

“When I saw the photograph, I realised it was Javaid, my neighbour from Kashmir, who also was doing business here in Kathmandu,” recalls Nisar. “I took them to my place. Ali Mehmood and Lateef Ahmad Waja were in their rooms. The police took all of us to Kathmandu police station.”  Finally, they were in Delhi.

In Delhi, they were kept for nine days before being brought before the court. Almost 11 days later, Rajasthan Police came and took Nisar with them to Jaipur jail.

Nasir’s elder brother, Iftikhar, was also arrested from Delhi at the same time. He moved out of jail after 14 years in 2010.

Nisar said they were tortured repeatedly. “They asked us same old questions and every time we denied any involvement,” Nisar said. Finally, police made them sign a bundle of blank papers and then they made up the cases. Interestingly, the Investigating Officer, SP Atri, Nisar said, had promised them that the police would let them free once the real culprit is arrested.

Twenty-three years later, wearing a white KameezShalwar, Nisar sat with his relatives in a big hall at their FatehKadal residence. A young man in his twenties came in and hugged Nisar. Nisar did not recognise him. Nisar’s brother told him that the young guy is the same kid who Nisar used to play with. He was astonished.

“He is the same guy who used to do very fast bowling,” a friend of Nisar told him pointing towards a man who has white hair and a long beard now.

Back home, it was their younger brother, MirzaZaffarHussain who looked after the family. “Our father had passed away earlier and then this tragedy took place,” Zaffar said. “Someone had to take responsibility.” Nobody, he insists, can understand what their family has gone through in the last 23 years.

After reaching home, Nisar said he was not able to sleep during nights. The reason is that he has slept on a concrete floor for 23 years.

Nisar is unable to relate with the Kashmir he knew. “Everything has changed,” he said. “The courtyards aren’t visible anywhere. The playground where I used to play is nowhere. Constructions are everywhere.”

Meanwhile, when a person stepped inside the room, Nisar stood up to hug him.. after Nisar introduced him to the small gathering, it turned out the person is Tariq Ahmad Dar who was falsely accused in the Sarojni Nagar blasts (that killed 62 people and left 210 injured) and was later released in 2017 after 12 years.

Nisar and Tariq were jail mates for a long time. They shared a few jail memories with the others around. “Nasir would make sure that all of us do exercise regularly since we were kept with topmost criminals who could attack us anytime,” Tariq said. “So to be ready we all used to exercise regularly.”

With brother back home, Nisar’s sister, Gulshan, looked worried. “He spent half of his life in jail and now he does not know much in Kashmir,” she said. But Nisar is optimistic that he would adjust himself. “I will start from zero and try to do something in the rest of my life now,” Nisar said.

A few metres away from Nisar’s house lives Lateef Ahmad Waja. they were a lot of ebb and flow at the outer door. There was a scene of festivity everywhere. Women were busy serving Nun Chai fromsamovars to an unending line of guests.

A while later, a middle-aged woman with a beaming face came out of the house to check if other samovars are ready to be taken inside. a person introduced her as NurJahan, Lateef’s mother. She was very happy after seeing her son home.

“When he was in Tihar Jail, I visited him every six months,” Jehan said. But the last visit was painful because he had been brutally beaten up and he was wearing blood-soaked clothes which she brought home and showed to different politicians. “Nobody helped us even after I showed his clothes to many politicians.” NurJehan has just one question: “How is the government going to pay them back for the youth they snatched from them?”

Lateef knows Ali Bhat and MirzaNisar from the same day when he was arrested along with them.

In 2006, when Ghulam Mohammad Waja, Lateef’s father came back home after meeting his son, detained in Jaipur Jail, he told his family that the case is going to stretch for a long time. It helped Wajas to get ready for a long haul.

Lateef was the eldest son of the family, barely 19 in 1996. To supplement his family finances, he went to Kathmandu with one of his cousins.

He was doing well until one day, he was at his rented room and someone knocked at his door. As the door opened, a group of men took him along. He resisted but was told they were cops. He was told that he would be released after questioning. In the car, he found Ali and MirzaNisar.

In Delhi, he was produced before the court that remanded him to custody for 14 days. “I knew MirzaNisar very well because we lived in the same locality and I had seen Ali Mehmood couple of times in Kathmandu,” Lateef said. After spending 14 years in Tihar, he was sent to Jaipur. In Jaipur Jail, Lateef said, he was brutally tortured. “At times, they beat me and I fell ill terribly but not a single doctor attended me,” he remembers.

His father took up the defence of his son and would regularly visit him. It stopped one day, in 2006, when he died of a heart attack. He had met Lateef five days before he died. They had requested custody parole but were denied. Heartbroken, WajaSr came home and died four days later. All of a sudden, the responsibility came on the shoulders of his younger son, Tariq Ahmad Waja, then a seventh standard student.

“On July 22, my lawyer called me to inform that my brother has been acquitted of all charges,” recalls Tariq while breaking down. He didn’t get married fearing that he might be unable to take care of his ailing widowed mother and a brother in jail. “It would not have been possible for me to look after my mother and brother well if I had been married so I never thought about marriage,” Tariq, now 37, said. “For me, my priority was my brother.”

Sitting at home, Lateef was passing through a daydreaming phase. He said he will take time to re-adjust. “We knew when to wake up when to have food,” Lateef said.  “We had become habitual of it.”

After coming home, he asked about Shareefa, his cousin, who he said was very close to him. He was shocked to know of her demise. “It is not easy for me to cope up with what has happened in my family,” he said. His mother had to make an effort to introduce the children to him. His younger sister was studying in ninth standard when he was arrested. Married and settled, her daughter is now in the tenth standard.

“What is more important for us right now is that he should now be able to live his life peacefully,” his brother said. “He has already lost so many things, I just hope he lives happily now.”

Goni’s story is not so uninteresting. On July 27, when Goni reached Bhaderwah, he found a crowd of people from Pasri Bus Stand to Jamia Masjid assembled to welcome him. He reached home, went to the mosque for prayers and then visited the graveyard to offer prayers at the graves of his father and mother.

Goni was arrested from a Gujarat tea stall and booked for his involvement in the blast. “I kept on pleading that I have never been involved in any such activity ever in my life,” Goni told reporters in Bhaderwah. “I told them I am just a teacher and I teach at Islamia Middle School Bhaderwah, but all in vain.”

ShafiqaGoni, his retired nursing teacher, spent every single penny to get him out but failed.

“I was unable to recognize the place where I live,” Goni told Kashmir Life. “I was unsure of my release so I did not tell my family that I am out of jail.”

“When my mother was on death bed, I applied thrice for his parole but every time it was turned down,” Shafiqa  said. She died three years back.

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