This was his last byline
by Izhar Wani
SRINAGAR, India, March 8, 2012 (AFP) – Syed Maqbool Shah, an aspiring teacher from Kashmir aged 17, was visiting his brother in New Delhi in June 1996 when police wrongly accused him of taking part in a bombing.
The car blast the month before had ripped through the bustling Lajpat Nagar area of shops and homes, killing 13 people and putting local law enforcement agencies under intense pressure to find the culprits. Police swooped in a pre-dawn raid on Shah’s brother’s rented residence where evidence tying the teenager to the blast was said to have been found — including a spare tyre from a stolen car linked to the bombings.
Shah was arrested, charged and sent to Tihar Jail, the notorious high-security New Delhi prison that he would share with militants, rapists and other criminals for nearly 10 of the 14 years he was imprisoned.
For the first three months, he wept everyday, but later took refuge in religion after meeting an elderly Kashmiri detainee. “I used to pray five times a day,” he told AFP in his family’s home in Kashmir’s main city of Srinagar. He also kept a prison diary documenting his life behind bars.
After his arrest, the case took four years to come to trial and another 10 to reach a verdict, which finally saw Shah acquitted of all charges. Over the course of his imprisonment, the judge handling his case changed 26 times, and with each switch came new delays. “I was never convicted but never released, not even on bail,” a thin and pale-looking Shah said.
“The last five years were the toughest. I was in solitary confinement and it adversely impacted my health,” he said.
He now takes medication for neurological problems and has chronic pain in his neck, back and legs. Shah’s lost years, which he describes as “pain and agony”, point to two major failings in India’s dysfunctional criminal justice system.
Administrative delays mean suspects charged with non-bailable offences must often wait years before the evidence collected by India’s notoriously corrupt police service can be challenged in court. Campaigners also say prejudice against Muslims, particularly during investigations into terror attacks, leads police to unfairly target members of the religion, which is a minority faith in India.
Shah’s case is far from rare.
On November 16 last year, seven Muslim men were released on bail, five years after their arrest in connection with a bomb attack in Malegoan, Maharashtra. Investigators now believe a right-wing Hindu group was behind the blasts that targeted Muslim worshippers and killed more than 30. The seven men, who have maintained their innocence throughout, are expected to be cleared.
In another case highlighted in May, Imran Kirmani, an aeronautical engineer from Kashmir who dreamed of being a pilot, was released after four and half years in jail after being wrongly accused of plotting a terror strike in 2006.
Right groups and campaigners have long sought to highlight how false imprisonment occurs. Human Rights Watch, the New York-based rights group, released a report called “The Anti-National” last year, accusing the police of fabricating confessions and arbitrarily detaining Muslims.
“By relying on forced and sometimes fabricated confessions, the Indian government risks punishing the wrong suspects while perpetrators remain free,” the report said.
“For genuine progress to be made, Indian police need to put an end to the ugly assumption… that virtually any Muslim is a threat to national security,” it concluded.
Leading Indian human rights activist Angana Chatterji also says that “on repeated occasions we have witnessed how Muslims have been targeted, discriminated against, and criminalised by the Indian police.”
Markandey Katju, a former judge from the Indian Supreme Court who retired last September, said police ineptitude lay at the core of the problem. “The point is that they (the police) cannot catch the real culprits, so whomever they think may have committed the crime they catch hold of them,” he said in an October interview with cable news network NDTV. “Some bomb blast takes place, they catch hold of the local Muslims and young people and implicate them,” he added.
Arun Bhagat, a one-time head of New Delhi police and former chief of India’s powerful Intelligence Bureau, denied that police were biased and stressed that terror investigations were complicated and difficult to undertake. “Evidence is often very fleeting and many witnesses are unreliable, with some of them implicating their enemies to settle scores,” he told AGP. “Therefore, there are instances of miscarriage of justice but this is part of the system and one cannot help it.
“But in general there is no such bias against Kashmiris.”
On April 8, 2010, six men were convicted over the Lajpat Nagar bombings of 2006 and three of them later sentenced to death. Four others, including Shah, were acquitted for lack of evidence. “The judge said ’I am acquitting you with your honour and dignity intact’ but he didn’t reprimand the police,” complained Shah.
He was released from jail immediately and the next day he left for Kashmir. He was cleared when the owner of the car used in the blast said the tyre supposedly found by police in Shah’s brother’s flat did not belong to him.
“I was innocent. I knew it. Even they (the police) knew it. My only sin was that I was born in Kashmir,” Shah says, referring to the restive Muslim-majority province in northwestern India.
He says he has met Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah several times to request compensation or a government job. “He has promised to help but so far nothing has happened,” Shah said.
Working in the family handicrafts business is no longer an option. It closed as the family spent their savings on flying to and from New Delhi and paying for lawyers. Shah is withdrawn, spending much of his time in isolation in his house or at the local mosque.
“I also want to settle down in life but who will marry an unemployed person, a person who is often sick and has no money even to commute a short distance in a bus?” asks Shah. “I can’t even work as a labourer.”
During his time behind bars, both his father and sister died. His sister, a mother of two, “was very much attached to Maqbool. She withered and died,” says Shah’s mother, Zoona Begum.
“It would have been a great reunion had they been alive,” Begum said.
For Shah, coming to terms with his grief and the emotional scars caused by his confinement will be a long process.
“A knock at the door in the evening hours still gives me cold sweats,” he says.