All The Wrong Men … Special report of Tehelka

All The Wrong Men … Special report of Tehelka

 Wednesday, 06 August 2008:

A cleric’s dubious arrest over the Ahmedabad blasts is just the tip. A three-month investigation by AJIT SAHI of TEHELKA exposes the random targeting of Muslims by the police

AS HE’D done unfailingly every Friday for two decades, Maulana Abdul Haleem cleared his throat and began to speak to the faithful on July 25. It was near 2 pm, and the soft-spoken, revered aalim, or Islamic scholar, had just led scores of Muslims in the hour-long juma namaaz at his packed mosque in one of Ahmedabad’s Muslim localities where the preacher and many in his congregation live. His sermon this afternoon was on a Muslim’s duty towards his neighbours. “You cannot fill your stomach if your neighbour is hungry,” Haleem spoke in his unhurried tone. “You cannot discriminate between your Hindu and Muslim neighbours.”

Thirty hours later, within minutes of the serial blasts that killed 53 people in Ahmedabad on Saturday, policemen stormed Haleem’s house barely a km from the mosque and dragged him away as his stunned neighbours watched. On Monday, as a local magistrate gave the Crime Branch his custody for two weeks, police claimed Haleem is a crucial link in the Saturday blasts and that grilling him would unravel the execution of and the conspiracy behind the terror act.

In a time of tragedy and terror, everybody, justifiably, wants answers, culprits, punishment. The challenge then is not to reach for the quick routes, the easy demonisations. Unfortunately, the Indian State has not quite met that challenge. Over the years, for instance, SIMI has come to be a dread acronym for most Indians ? Students’ Islamic Movement of India, a hotbed of terrorism, a lethal and shadowy organisation intent on destroying the nation. Quick on the back of every horrific blast, that name is thrust upon the public mind like a deadly innuendo ? stretching outwards to embrace the entire community. But how true are these allegations?

In the struggle for a just and safe society, it is crucial to find real perpetrators and correct answers; crucial to cleave doggedly to the idea of fair play and rule of law; crucial not to fall prey to overblown and false psychoses. In pursuit of this, in an attempt to sift fact from prejudice, TEHELKA conducted an investigation across India over three months and 12 cities. Serialised here, starting this week, the disturbing investigation found that an overwhelming majority of terrorism cases ? especially those related to the outlawed SIMI ? are based on either non-existent or fraudulent evidence and are an affront to both law and common sense.

The investigation found that entrenched prejudices in the executive and the judiciary, an abject lack of political will against framing

scapegoats, and a 24×7 news media that demands instant whodunit answers and unquestioningly copy-pastes every unproven police and intelligence story on terrorist networks has morphed into a tragic persecution of hundreds of people falsely accused of terrorism. Nearly all of these are Muslim; nearly all of these are poor.

“We will rise to the challenge and I am confident we will be able to defeat these forces,” Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said as he walked about in the debris at Ahmedabad’s civil hospital, where two blasts had inflicted the worst casualties. He urged political parties and police and intelligence agencies to work together against efforts aimed at “destroying our social fabric, undermining communal harmony.” Unfortunately, given their staggering record of false cases against innocent people, it appears that incompetent police and intelligence agencies are doing exactly the opposite.

Maulana Abdul Haleem’s story, chronicled below, is a searing example why

SINCE SUNDAY, in anonymous plants in the stenographic news media, police have claimed that Haleem is a SIMI member linked with Pakistan- and Bangladeshbased terrorists. Gujarat government’s lawyer told the remand magistrate that Haleem sent Muslim youth from Ahmedabad to Uttar Pradesh to train as terrorists to avenge the 2002 mass killings of Muslims in the state. He said they planned, among others, to assassinate BJP leader LK Advani and Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi. Police have said Haleem was absconding since he was named an accused in this case in 2002.

TEHELKA’s investigation in Ahmedabad following the cleric’s arrest has thrown up strong evidence, documentary and circumstantial, that far from absconding, Haleem has lived at his house ? which is less than a km from the local police station ? for years and led a public life within his community. The charge against him that he sent Muslims to train as terrorists is highly dubious based as it is on just one letter from Haleem whose contents don’t remotely reflect a link with terrorism. And until Saturday’s bomb blasts, Ahmedabad police had never called Haleem a SIMI member.

If anything, Haleem’s family and followers say police have harassed him for years for his role in helping victims of the 2002 anti-Muslim violence. This year, on May 27, an inspector from the police station sent Haleem a onepage handwritten notice in Gujarati. It said: “An office of Markaz Ahle-Hadis [the Islamic sect to which Haleem and his followers belong] Trust has been opened in Shop no. 4 in the Alishan Shopping Centre. You are its head? Many members have been appointed in it. You are directed to submit a list of their names, addresses and phone numbers.”

Apart from the gross illegality of such a demand on a trust constituted as per law with no criminal charge against it, the letter proves the police knew Haleem’s whereabouts and were in touch with him as late as two months ago. Indeed, the notice mentions Haleem’s home address: 2, Devi Park Society, near Baikunth Dham Temple. Haleem’s family has proof that the police received his reply the next day.

A month later, on June 29, Haleem rushed telegrams to Gujarat’s director-general of police and Ahmedabad’s police commissioner

claiming that the police forcibly entered his house that day and harassed his wife and children in his absence. “We are peace-loving and law-abiding citizens and have never been part of any illegal activity,” Haleem wrote the telegram in Hindi. “The police are unlawfully harassing me and my family without appropriate cause. This is a violation of our civil rights.” Predictably, he didn’t hear from either officer.

In April, when a local outfit called Social Unity & Peace Forum, which has both Muslims and Hindus as its members, organised a socio-religious meeting, it wrote to the police seeking permission to use loudspeakers. That application clearly mentioned that Haleem would be the main speaker at the event. Haleem’s family also offers his driving licence, renewed by the Ahmedabad transport office on December 28, 2006, as proof that he led a normal life all along. Three years ago, in July 2005, the Gujarati newspaper Divya Bhaskar had published Haleem’s picture with a statement he released at a press conference giving his views on a raging controversy over the alleged rape of a woman, Imrana, by her father-in-law in a village in Uttar Pradesh.

“It is crazy that we have to prove Maulana Haleem’s innocence,” says his friend Haneef Shaikh, who has appealed to the Gujarat governor to secure the cleric’s release. Adds Nazir, in whose house Haleem has lived with his family as tenant: “I have known Maulana most closely. He is a man of religion and has never indulged in terrorism.” Says Haleem’s wife Noor Saba: “I swear by my children that my husband is not a terrorist. He is being framed.”

Outrage and disbelief is unmistakable in the cleric’s neighbourhood. “Maulana Haleem has helped hundreds in their daily lives by imparting them the skills of patience and fortitude,” says a shaken Ehsanul Haq, a 27-year-old embroiderer. Haq fishes out his marriage certificate, the nikaahnama the Maulana signed after presiding at his wedding on June 1, to show that Haleem wasn’t any absconder. Haleem had delivered a sermon to the guests at Haq’s wedding over loudspeakers that Haq had installed ? with police permission.

Abdul Haleem, who turned 43 on July 13, hails from Uttar Pradesh and has lived in Ahmedabad from 1988. He is a preacher with a puritanical Islamic sect called Ahle Hadis that began on the subcontinent some 180 years ago and has survived a frowning Sunni orthodoxy. The sect lays its store by the Hadis ? the oral narrative of Prophet Mohammad’s life ? as a guiding principle for Muslims in addition to the Quran. The news media have long parroted the police’s insinuation that Ahle-Hadis is a terrorist outfit linked with Lashkar-e-Tayaba. The police claim its members include many terror accused such as those of the July 2006 Mumbai train blasts. The sect, with a claimed membership of 30 million in India, denies the charge. It points out that Union Home Minister Shivraj Patil was the chief guest at its national symposium two years ago at New Delhi.

In Ahmedabad, Haleem led the 5,000-odd Ahle Hadis followers for 14 years, resigning three years ago to minister a small mosque so he could begin life as a scrap dealer to earn a regular income to feed his wife and seven children, the oldest two of whom study at a madarsa in Delhi.

HALEEM’S TROUBLES had begun soon after the 2002 anti-Muslim violence in Gujarat as he involved himself in relief work at the camps housing hundreds of Muslim refugees. An Ahmedabad native named Shahid Bakshi, who lived in Kuwait and was visiting his home, came to meet Haleem with two other Muslims. One of them was from Moradabad in Uttar Pradesh who also lived in Kuwait. The other was a small-time trader from Moradabad. The three wanted to help 10-year-old Muslim orphans of the 2002 violence by bringing them free education and care, so Haleem took them to four refugee camps. A week later, one camp responded saying it had found 34 children for such care. Haleem phoned the Kuwait expatriate, who was then in Moradabad, and also wrote to him about the offer. But getting no response, the plan died and, importantly, no children were ever sent.

Three months later, in August 2002, Delhi Police arrested Shahid Bakshi and the other expatriate from Kuwait allegedly with 4.5 kg of the explosive material, RDX. The Moradabad trader was also arrested from his hometown. All three were charged under the Prevention of Terrorism Act for conspiring to carry out terrorist acts. Delhi Police found Haleem’s letter (about the camp’s offer of the orphan children) with the expatriate from Kuwait. As both Bakshi and Haleem were from Ahmedabad, police there were informed. Immediately, Ahmedabad police officer DG Vanzara called in Haleem and detained him ? illegally ? for five days. (Vanzara is now in jail, accused of killing Gujarat businessman Sohrabuddin in cold blood in 2005 and trying to pass him off as a terrorist.) Haleem’s family frantically filed a petition with the Gujarat High Court to secure his release. “The judge ordered the police to bring Haleem to the court in two hours,” recalls the family’s lawyer, Hashim Qureshi. The police instantly released Haleem who rushed to the court where his statement on his illegal detention was duly recorded and is part of official documents.

Even as Delhi Police created the ‘RDX case’ against the two expatriates visiting from Kuwait and the Moradabad trader, police in

Ahmedabad created a parallel case against the same individuals for “luring Muslim youth to train as terrorists in Moradabad”. This is the case the police and the media have referred since Haleem’s arrest for the July 26 bomb blasts to argue that the cleric was involved in “sending Muslim youth to train as terrorists”. The Gujarat government lawyer was openly lying on Monday when he told the magistrate that Haleem had sent “30 youth” to Moradabad for training as terrorists. The charge-sheet in the case clearly admits that the so-called conspiracy had remained on paper and no children ever travelled from Ahmedabad to Moradabad.

While Delhi’s ‘RDX case’ named Haleem a witness, Ahmedabad’s ‘terrorist training case’ named him an accused and said he was absconding. The law says the police have to follow due legal process before declaring an accused as absconding. This includes searches at his house and workplace in view of independent witnesses, and recording statements from neighbours to establish that the accused has not been seen for a long time. The Ahmedabad police did not bother with this exercise.

The entire case against Haleem is based on a letter he wrote to the expatriate from Kuwait, Farhan Ahmad Ali. Dated August 7, 2002, the letter makes no reference to terrorist training or any other unlawful activity. It simply said: “You had come [to Ahmedabad] with an ‘ahem maqsad’ (important goal).” With a giant leap of imagination, the police claim that the words “ahem maqsad” can only mean a conspiracy for terrorist training. Haleem wrote that six of the children were orphans and the rest poor. He concluded the letter saying: “I believe that by god’s grace you will certainly help me in this educational and constructive mission to propagate Islam.” In his deposition before a Delhi court in the ‘RDX case’, Haleem said he was told the children will get “a good education and decent living” in Moradabad, and had no clue if Bakshi and the others aimed to train the children as terrorists.

Last year, the Delhi judge hearing the ‘RDX case’ found Shahid Bakshi and the other expatriate from Kuwait, Farhan Ahmad Ali, guilty and sentenced each to seven years in jail. The court accepted the police version even though the only witnesses to the alleged recovery of RDX were policemen. Ahmad Ali had claimed that he was arrested at the airport as he was to board a flight to Kuwait, and said he had tickets as proof. The judge ignored that.

Both Bakshi and Ahmad Ali appealed at the Delhi High Court against their conviction. Here is an incredible twister: while they got bail from the Delhi High Court despite being convicted by the lower court, they were denied bail by the Gujarat High Court in the ‘terrorist training case’ although no guilt has yet been established in that case and the Gujarat crime branch admits their crime never went beyond hatching the alleged conspiracy. That’s not all.

The Moradabad trader, a frail 56-year-old man named Hafiz Mohammad Tahir, was acquitted in the ‘RDX case’. He proved doubly lucky when the Gujarat High Court granted him bail in the ‘terrorist training case’ in June 2004. In its eye-opening bail order, the judge said: “? All that remains against the present applicant [Tahir] is that he visited Ahmedabad and had visited camps to identify the children so that they can be better looked after. That by itself cannot be considered an offence.”

Since Bakshi and Ahmad Ali are accused of exactly the same crime, the argument should be valid for them, too. Yet, another Gujarat High Court judge denied them bail and both continue to languish in jail. Tahir has, meanwhile, moved to Ahmedabad because the Gujarat High Court’s 2004 bail order said he must report to the Crime Branch office in Ahmedabad every Sunday. On Sunday, July 27, the morning after the blasts, Tahir visited the crime branch office with trepidation. “They grilled me four hours on the blasts,” Tahir told TEHELKA. “I was glad when they let me go.”

The hearing in the ‘terrorist training case’ is nearly over. It is to be seen if a separate trial will be called against Haleem, since he is no more “absconding”. Meanwhile, Haleem’s family is worried stiff over the next meal and the next month’s house rent of Rs 2,500. Haleem’s wife says she has no savings. His lone employee, a daily labourer, is trying to run Haleem’s scrap shop.

SADLY, MAULANA Abdul Haleem’s story is anything but rare. One glaring case concerns a “family of terrorists”. On July 15, a posse of policemen arrested 28-year-old Mohammad Muqeemuddin Yasir as he returned home at night from his father’s workshop in Hyderabad. Ten days later, when serial bomb blasts rocked Bangalore on July 25 killing two people, Hyderabad Police Commissioner Prasanna Rao told the Hindustan Times newspaper that, during interrogation, Yasir had confessed that before his arrest, he had taken terror “operatives” to Karnataka and “arranged safe houses” for them. Of course, Yasir denies the confession. “I haven’t told them anything,” Yasir told his mother, Tasleem Fatima, when she visited him at the jail on July 29. “The police are lying.” Fatima told TEHELKA her son was tortured during what the police commissioner calls “interrogation”. “He was hung upside down and beaten,” she said.

Apart from the fact that a confession made to the police is inadmissible as evidence before a judge (never mind that the news media accept confessions as gospel), Yasir’s alleged confession, if true, should be a slap on the face of the Hyderabad Police. After all, Yasir is an ex-SIMI member whose father and one brother are jailed on charges of terrorism. Yasir’s father, 56-yearold Maulana Mohammad Nasiruddin, is a wellrespected cleric who has now incarcerated in Sabarmati jail in Ahmedabad for nearly four years and has been denied bail all the way up to the Supreme Court. Yasir’s younger brother, Riasuddin Nasir, is jailed in Karnataka’s Belgaum district since he was arrested in January.

With his brother and father suspected as dreaded terrorists, the Hyderabad Police should have kept tabs on Yasir all the time and instantly known if he was aiding terrorists. That the police didn’t catch Yasir “arranging safe houses” for terrorists in Karnataka is because he probably never did any such thing. This reporter interviewed Yasir in Hyderabad a month before his arrest, on his birthday on June 12, at an engineering workshop that his father had set up three decades ago with borrowed money and skills picked up as an assistant to a roadside mechanic. In the din of machines, Yasir was happily engaged in managing customers crowding the small front office. “My father and brother have been framed,” he forcefully told TEHELKA.

A shy man with a Boy Scout smile, Yasir seems a victim of patently bogus cases against him. He was a member of SIMI when it was banned by the Centre on September 27, 2001. (Given the relentless government propaganda against SIMI, the reader might find it hard to believe that no court in India has yet upheld the charge of terrorism against SIMI as an organisation.) Yasir echoed dozens others interviewed by this reporter across India in saying that SIMI was a platform for “deep religious training and self-purification”, and not for acts of terrorism or anti-India conspiracies. “SIMI took up issues of atrocities on Muslims from Chechnya to Kashmir,” Yasir said. “It never gave up the issue of the Babri Masjid, and this attracted many of us.”

ON THE night before SIMI was banned, the police arrested Yasir and booked him with the other two SIMI representatives in Hyderabad under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. A magistrate gave them bail the next day. A day later, the police slapped another case against the three, alleging that one of them was arrested making a speech against the government. The other two, including Yasir, were shown as absconding. They went back to the court and were sent to jail, where Yasir spent 29 days before securing bail. Seven years have gone by. Trial is yet to begin.

Worse is the fate of Yasir’s father, a firebrand cleric who never held his tongue in public speeches against the government, especially on issues such as the Babri Masjid demolition and the 2002 anti-Muslim violence of Gujarat. Embroiled in cooked-up cases, in several of which he was subsequently acquitted, Maulana Nasiruddin was asked by the Hyderabad Police to report at their office regularly.

On one such day in October 2004, when Maulana Nasiruddin reached the police station, he was arrested by a police team from Ahmedabad for his alleged involvement in a terror conspiracy in Gujarat, including the March 2003 murder of former Gujarat Home Minister, Haren Pandya. (The only evidence against Maulana Nasiruddin is his confession, which, in a letter to the court, he has denied making.)

Local Muslims who had gone with the Maulana to the police station began protesting as he was led out. At this, Gujarat police officer Narendra Amin took out his service revolver and shot dead one protestor. All hell broke loose. Nasiruddin’s supporters refused to move the dead protestor’s body unless the police filed an FIR against Amin. Finally, Hyderabad police filed two cases back to back: One, their own, against the protestors for blocking the Maulana’s arrest; and the other, under pressure, against Narendra Amin, for shooting the protestor.

The case against Amin hasn’t moved an inch in four years. The Hyderabad police ought to have seized his revolver and sent it for a forensic examination, along with the bullet recovered from the dead protestor’s body. They should have arrested and produced Amin before a magistrate. This is an open-and-shut case if there ever was one: with the weapon of homicide matching the bullet, and dozens of eyewitnesses. Of course, none of this happened. Amin proceeded to Ahmedabad with Maulana Nasiruddin in his custody. The FIR against him has become a dead letter.

Amin is the same police officer who was subsequently accused of killing Kausar Bi, the wife of Gujarat businessman Sohrabuddin who was killed by police officer Vanzara in 2005 (as mentioned above in Haleem’s story). Like Vanzara, Amin, too, is now in jail.

MEANWHILE, A tragedy has befallen the main complainant against Amin in the Hyderabad shootout case. This is none other than

20-year-old Nasir, Maulana Nasiruddin’s youngest son and Yasir’s youngest brother. On January 11 this year, Nasir was arrested by police in Karnataka with another person and was accused of stealing the motorcycle they were allegedly riding. Claiming a knife was found on the two, the police slapped charges such as ‘waging war against State’ on Nasir and his co-accused.

Amazingly, the police filed seven confessions from the two accused over the next 18 days. Not one showed them saying they were SIMI members. Police then filed their eighth confessions in which they allegedly accepted being SIMI members and the attendant terror charges. Ninety days later, when the police failed to file a charge-sheet, Nasir’s lawyer landed at the magistrate’s house who then had no option but to grant bail as per law. But by this time, the police had implicated Nasir in another case of conspiracy, so he continues in jail. Of course, Nasir has retracted his confessions alleging torture. Yet, he has little hope against biases in the judicial system.

Magistrate B. Jinaralkar, who sent the two accused to police custody, told TEHELKA reporter Sanjana the following in an interview:

“Even as I was signing the necessary papers remanding them to judicial custody, Asadullah [the other accused] stepped forward requesting to speak with me. He told me that the police denied them food and water and subjected them to repeated beatings. He proceeded to show me the bruises on Nasir’s body. The two repeatedly made a reference to human rights violation by the police and demanded medical attention.

“I was very surprised by three things: they were talking of their fundamental rights in an authoritative manner, they spoke English and, further, they readily admitted that they had stolen the bike, something most thieves never do in my experience.”

When a police sub-inspector phoned the magistrate “warning” that the accused shouldn’t be sent to judicial custody, the magistrate asked the evidence to be brought to this house. “The materials produced before me included duplicate identity cards, a fancy dagger, a map of South India with red marks against Udupi and Goa, an American dollar, two pieces of paper with written on one and ‘Jungle King behind back me’ on another.

“When I looked at these materials in their entirety, I felt that these were definitely not just bike thieves. Why would bike thieves carry around duplicate identity cards and a map of South India? The fact that they had an American dollar seemed to suggest they had international links. The paper with indicated to me that they were tech-savvy. The other piece of paper had a message that seemed to be a sort of code that I could not immediately decipher. Also, when I examined the South India map, Udupi had a sort of indication with a red marker against it. Perhaps they were planning to strike at the place during a religious function.

“All these suggested that there were definitely enough grounds in my opinion to grant the police custody of Nasir and Asadullah to facilitate further investigations.” Go figure.

So is there hope for Maulana Haleem, Muqeemuddin Yasir, Maulana Nasiruddin and Riasuddin Nasir? The boys’ mother doesn’t think so. “Why don’t the police put us all together in jail,” she told TEHELKA, her voice shaking with rage. “Then they can shoot all of us dead.” ?

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 31, Dated Aug 09, 2008


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