Journalist | Writer | Analyst
Ever since the Haneef arrest and New Delhi’s welcome intervention in the case, I had been meaning to write something about India’s pathetic record as far as the domestic treatment of terrorism suspects is concerned. Even when Indians have been arrested abroad, the Indian government has not been that diligent about ensuring consular access and due process. Remember Azmath Javid and Gul Mohammed? They were arrested in the U.S. soon after 9/11 and spent 18 months in jail as terror suspects. At the end, when nothing was found, they were made to plea-bargain on some minor charges and deported back to Hyderabad, India. I do not recall during that entire period reading any statement of concern by the erstwhile BJP-led Vajpayee government.
Anyhow, I am happy to report that I’ve been scooped by the one journalist most qualified to write such a piece, Iftikhar Gilani. Visitors to this blog may have read my Foreword to his book, My Days in Prison, a Kafkaesque account of what happens when Indian spooks decide to throw the book at you. Needless to say, the behaviour of the Indian media and judiciary in his case — as in most cases where the State arrests individuals (especially Muslims) on terrorism or espionage charges — fell woefully short of the kind of professionalism we saw on display in Australia in the Haneef case.
Iftikhar writes in the New Indian Express:
External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee needs praise for picking up phone at the behest of the Prime Minister and conveying his country’s concerns to his Australian counterpart. It is high time now for the Prime Minister to pick up a phone and talk to his Home Minister across the road in North Block and ponder over sufferings of many other innocents who might have become victims of ‘‘exceptionally good work’’ of his intelligence and security officials.
Among the cases he describes is his own, of course, but also that of a Kashmiri shawl vendor, Altaf Ahmed, jailed for five years on a charge of terrorism financing. The evidence? A million dollar novelty note that the police found on him! You can find Iftikhar’s article here. Just in case the link expires, I’m also posting it here. Go ahead and read it.
2 August 2007
New Indian Express
Haneef should thank Australia
Last Sunday while I was watching a radiant and emotional Dr. Mohammad Haneef on TV reuniting with his family in Bangalore, I had nothing but praise for the Government of India, whose intervention led to an honourable release of the hapless doctor. It was perhaps the first time that the government had shown a sense of belonging towards its own citizen caught in the vortex of security laws. But my admiration for the government proved short-lived as soon as I received a call from Mohammad Aslam, a barrackmate from my days in Delhi’s Tihar Jail, where I spent seven months in 2002-03. An illiterate auto driver, he was convicted for five-and-half years under Official Secrets Act (OSA) for possessing hand-drawn sketches of some roads in Delhi and Agra Cantonments. Besides, police claimed to have recovered from him details of army units located at Meerut and Roorkee and some amateur photographs of ’vital installations’ like the Delhi Secretariat, the Okhla Barrage and Indian Oil Corporation. Aslam’s ordeal began in May 2002, at an East Delhi bus stop where he had been waiting for a UP roadways bus. Suddenly, a Maruti car came to a screeching halt near him and two persons emerged. One of them asked for directions to an address. As Aslam was explaining the way, another person grabbed him and forced him to smell something that left him semi-unconscious.
As he lost power of resistance, he was bundled inside the car. At that point Aslam had not completely lost his senses. He heard his abductors arguing over whether they had caught the correct man. But one of them finally ended the debate, saying, ‘‘This boy is tall and fair and matches the one we want. We can fix him’’. Probably, they had been tailing someone else, who had given them a slip but that did not prevent the abductors from going ahead. Ultimately, at an interrogation centre, Aslam was made to copy the sketches and sign on the paper. This became the ultimate ‘proof ‘ to book and later convict him under the OSA. In jail, Aslam studied hard and passed exams. He was even made coordinator for secondary education. But after coming out of jail where he served a five-and-half year sentence, he was aghast. In a choked voice, he told me that Sunday as Dr Hannef was joyfully reuniting with his family that his third employer has now thrown Aslam out of his job. Aslam was sacked after the employer came to know of his stint in jail. Hardly in his early 30s, Aslam’s future is deeply uncertain. He feels shattered. In the police lock-up where I had been taken to, I had met Altaf Ahmed, a small time Kashmiri shawl vendor, crying in pain. He had been severely tortured, kept naked in sub-zero temperature; ice-cold water was poured on him and, thereafter, he hah been beaten mercilessly. Police had recovered a million dollar note from him! The note was a novelty note, a souvenir, of no monetary value. On the strength of this novelty currency Altaf was booked for financing a terrorist organization in Jammu and Kashmir. He was convicted and had to spend five years in prison.
Take my case. Had there been no pubic outcry and some soft hearts within the establishment who ultimately recognized the dirty games of the Intelligence Bureau (IB) sleuths and police, I too, would have been convicted and sentenced to a 14-year long jail term. The only evidence against me was an article ‘A Review of Indian Repression in Kashmir’ by Nazir Kamal, I had downloaded from a website (www.issi.org.pk) of a Pakistani think-tank, Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad (ISSI). To top it all, when the annexure of the article were sent to the Military Intelligence for their opinion, the MI determined the document to be of ‘‘high security value, prejudicial to the security of the country and discloses order of the battle (ORBAT) in Jammu and Kashmir.’’ However, it took as long as six months for the MI to revise its opinion and tell the court the document had no security relevance and that the document was available in public domain. I commend Australian criminal justice system.
They realized their folly within merely 25 days and released Hanif from incarceration. I was happy to note that they filed his charge sheet within only five days. His bail application was decided in one week. Can you guess how much time it took for my charge sheet to be filed? Three months! Until the charge sheet was filed for three months there was a lot of cock and bull stories that found their way to the media, which lapped them up. I suspect the stories were there to affect public opinion. Immediately after my arrest in June 2002, my lawyer had filed a bail application. The court took it up for hearing after five months. I must tell you the application was summarily rejected. One of the arguments for the rejection was that court had found evidence of my inclination towards liberation of Kashmir and cited as proof the existence of an e-mail in my computer entitled ‘‘ATROCITIES OF FORCES IN GILGIT’. It needs hardly to be mentioned here that Gigit does not exist within that part of Jammu and Kashmir that India controls! The e-mail was actually a memorandum issued by Balwaristan National Front detailing alleged atrocities of Pakistani forces and the Inter Services Intelligence in the Gilgit area of Pakistan administered Kashmir. In the e-mail the organization had appealed to the United Nations and other organization to ’’intervene‘‘ on behalf of 2 million down trodden people of Balwaristan (Occupied Gilgit Baltistan)’’ and had demanded that then Pakistani President Rafiq Tarar, the then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharief, Army Chief General Pervez Musharraf, General Ziauddin, the then ISI Chief, General Mohammad Aziz be brought to the International Court of Justice as ‘‘war criminals.’’ The court had not even bothered to read this evidence before passing orders.
Soon after my arrest till the filing of the chargesheet, we had been pleading that that the document existed on the web. One day the court took notice and directed the police to investigate. In the next hearing, police furnished a certificate from a cyber cafe owner in which he declared he could not locate the document on the net. When we protested, court asked us to arrange a computer and internet facility. My friends brought a laptop into the chamber at the subsequent hearing. But the judge, Sangeeta Dhingra Sehgal, did not allow use of her official telephone line to connect the laptop to the internet. Those days broadband and wireless internet were yet to enter the market. Without connecting to the telephone there was no way we could access the internet. Without referring to my case, because it was sub-judice the Press Council of India, a quasi-judicial body in its July 19, 2002 meeting at Varanasi under the chairmanship of Justice K Jayachandra Reddy, had held ’’that any information which is publicly displayed on the internet cannot be treated as confidential and the reproduction or possession of such matter may not attract provisions of the Official Secrets Act.’’ Not only was this opinion of the Press Council ignored by the government, but when we produced the resolution in the court, the judge threw it away, and rebuked my lawyer. The same judge, it needs to be mentioned here, was later appointed Secretary to the same Press Council of India, whose resolution she had thrown at our face. My case took a turn only when the Military Intelligence (MI), under pressure from media and friends in the establishment, realized its folly and revised its opinion. The Home Ministry disregarded the fresh MI opinion but ultimately decided to withdraw the case in ‘‘public interest’’ after seven months.
Last Sunday I heard Dr. Haneef demanding apologies from the Australian government for his travails. At least they should apologize to my peace-loving nation, he said. Australian Prime Minister John Howard vowed to be safe in future rather than express regret. In my case, while leaders did express their regret privately, there were no public apologies. The officials, who had tampered with the documents, which amounted to contempt of court, are free. Before I forget, I must mention that two of them recently completed a prized posting in Kosovo as part of International Police Force. One of them was even promoted for ‘‘exceptionally good work.’’ External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee needs praise for picking up phone at the behest of the Prime Minister and conveying his country’s concerns to his Australian counterpart. It is high time now for the Prime Minister to pick up a phone and talk to his Home Minister across the road in North Block and ponder over sufferings of many other innocents who might have become victims of ‘‘exceptionally good work’’ of his intelligence and security officials.
Iftikhar Gilani is the Delhi Bureau Chief of Kashmir Times and is the author of My Days in Prison