BOGEY OF TERROR

From victims of injustice to campaigners for justice

Print edition : April 09, 2021

Abdul Wahid Shaikh in Mumbai. Photo: Mahtab Alam

Mohammad Aamir Khan addressing a public meeting in Hyderabad. Photo: Ismail Zabiullah

Bilal Kagzi addressing a public meeting in New Delhi. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Some of those acquitted in terror-related cases have been working as social activists or legal counsellors, travelling across the country to spread awareness about wrongful incarceration.

On September 12, 2015, when Abdul Wahid Shaikh (43) walked out of jail, after having spent nine years inside for a crime that he had not committed, he was clear about what he was going to do as a free man. On his last day in prison, he made a promise to his co-accused that he will ensure that their stories are brought out before the world so that people become aware that, like him, they are also innocent and that the cases against them are manufactured. This was not an extraordinary promise, as often, at the time of release from jail, people tend to make such promises to their co-accused and other inmates with whom they have shared time, space and memories of incarceration. However, what is remarkable about Abdul Wahid Shaikh is that he was able to keep his promise and has spent the past nearly six years creating awareness about the innocence of his co-accused and hundreds of other Muslim men who have been framed and incarcerated in false terror cases across the country.

Abdul Wahid Shaikh is the only person to be acquitted among the 13 who were arrested in the July 11, 2006, Mumbai serial bomb blasts case, better known as the 7/11 blasts. The blasts had left 188 people killed and over 800 injured. Between July and October that year, the Anti-Terror Squad (ATS) of Maharashtra arrested 13 persons, including Abdul Wahid Shaikh, in connection with the blasts. Charged under the contentious Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act (MCOCA), a special court in Mumbai sentenced five of the 12 accused to death and the remaining seven to life imprisonment. According to Abdul Wahid Shaikh, none of the 12 men is guilty. In fact, he asserts that those convicted and languishing in jail are more innocent than him. Notably, the police had claimed that Abdul Wahid Shaikh was a key link in the case as he had allegedly given shelter to those who planted the bombs across the city. Hence, he asks, “If I am innocent, then the question is how can they be guilty in the same case?” He is of the view that they were made scapegoats as the investigation agencies could not find the real culprits.

‘Begunah Qaidi’

Unlike others acquitted in terror-related cases, moving on with time was never an option that appealed to him, primarily for two reasons. “I believe that they are innocent like me, and hence deserve to be out of jail and live with their families like all free men. And to me, fighting for them is like paying zakat (an obligation of paying back to society as per Islam) for my own freedom,” Abdul Wahid Shaikh said. “This is why I have made it my mission to spread awareness about them, and to fight for their cases so that they can see the light of the day eventually,” he added. Abdul Wahid Shaikh currently teaches science to middle school students at a government aided school in Mumbai. After coming out of jail, he has written two books on terror-related cases. His first book, Begunah Qaidi (Innocent Prisoner), originally written in Urdu was translated in Hindi and simultaneously published in both the languages in 2017. The second book, which deals with Ishrat Jahan’s ‘encounter’, is slated to be published soon.

Also read: How Salman Farsi copes with the stigma after his acquittal in the 2006 Malegaon blast case

Ever since his acquittal and publication of the book, Abdul Wahid Shaikh has travelled far and wide to disseminate its message, speaking at book launches, public meetings, and giving interviews to national and international media organisations. Apart from chronicling the charges against his co-accused and checking the veracity of the claims, Begunah Qaidi also documents matters relating to the Akshardham temple attack (Gujarat, 2002), the Aurangabad arms haul case (Maharashtra, 2006), the Malegaon blasts case (Maharashtra, 2006) and others in which several Muslim men have been ‘framed, damned and acquitted’. Abdul Wahid Shaikh believes that when a person who has been acquitted speaks and campaigns about the innocence of his co-accused or others facing injustice, it is more likely to have an impact on people. Since he speaks from his experience, it becomes difficult for people to deny them. “In my interactions with students, the general public and the others, I have realised that people have no idea about the kind of injustice that is being meted out to people like me. There is no mechanism to educate them about it either. In fact, every effort has been made to ensure that they are not made aware of it as that can force the government to be held accountable, or at least push it to work for reform,” Abdul Wahid Shaikh said.

Mohammad Aamir Khan

Mohammad Aamir Khan (40) of Delhi, who spent 14 years in jail for multiple terror cases, agrees with Abdul Wahid Shaikh’s observations. The author of Framed as a Terrorist: My 14-Year Struggle to Prove My Innocence (2016), Mohammad Amir Khan has been working as a social activist and legal counsellor since his release in 2012. His book has been translated into nearly half a dozen Indian languages and he has travelled to different parts of the country to spread awareness about wrongful incarceration and its impact on individuals, their family and the community.

He said: “I was lucky that I got a good lawyer, when not everyone was willing to take up the case of a terror accused. Similarly, after my release, I received a lot of support from civil society organisations and media houses, which helped me in rebuilding my life. Unfortunately, not all the accused and those acquitted in these cases get the support that they deserve for several reasons. Hence, it is important for people like me to speak up and help them despite the fact that it is not an easy task and is akin to putting one’s life in danger again.”

Also read: Retreat of democracy: The terror of laws

Mohammad Aamir Khan is regularly invited by different national law schools and institutes of social work to speak about his experience, and he takes these opportunities to speak about hundreds of people who are still languishing in jail for no crime of theirs. “Speaking about my own experience is not just about speaking of the self. Through my presentations, I am also able to exhibit what is wrong with our criminal justice system and why it needs urgent reforms,” he said. According to him, his work is essentially an effort to protect and advance the values enshrined in the Constitution, as wrongful imprisonment is a violation of its provisions. He said: “What is heartening is that wherever I speak, there are people who always come up and enquire about what they can do to change the situation? And I know for sure that several of them have already been doing their bit to make things better…. While speaking at the national law universities, I make it a point to emphasise that as long as talented and privileged people only join corporate law firms, our criminal justice system is not going to change, as in order for it to become better we need more skilled and humane people in the system.” He added: “Even if I am able to convince one person and student to fight for justice, it is still worth fighting for. And I am glad that in all these years, I have been able convince more than a dozen people to do so, if not more.” According to Mohammad Aamir Khan, every person has an aptitude for social work and fighting for justice, one just needs to rekindle it.

Anurag Bhaskar, who teaches law at the Jindal Global Law School (Sonipat, Haryana) and is an affiliate Faculty at the Harvard Law School Center on Legal Profession, makes an important point regarding this. “Our criminal justice system has certain loopholes. Studies have shown that there are institutional and structural biases against Dalits, Adivasis, Muslims, denotified tribes, and other marginalised communities. However, the current academic discourse on criminal justice hardly includes any discussion on such social realities. I therefore consider it necessary that the narratives of those who are victimised and targeted because of their marginalised identity need to be visiblised. Their perspectives and lived experiences can shape discourses to reform and improve our justice system,” he said. He remembers inviting Mohammad Aamir Khan for his course on “Law, Politics and Social Transformation” while he was teaching at the National Law University, Delhi, in 2019. “Listening to the life experiences of Aamir emotionally touched the minds of the law students in my class. Several of them later told me how it sensitizsd them to the many fallouts of the criminal justice system. Some students thought that it was their best class till date,” Anurag Bhaskar opined. He is planning to invite Mohammad Aamir Khan again to interact with his students.

Also read: Crushing free spirit in the name of terrorism

Be it Abdul Wahid Shaikh or Mohammad Aamir Khan, it has not been an easy task to become an activist and campaigner to bring justice to victims of injustice. All along, they have not only been concerned about their own safety, livelihood and future, but also about their family members and relatives. The prospect of rearrest and the chances of them being implicated in trumped up cases loom large, and their families remain perennially scared of something untoward happening to them again. “It is not some imaginary fear,” said Abdul Wahid Shaikh, adding that “this has happened for real”. Both feel they are under surveillance all the time. According to them, the state agencies try their best to portray them as terrorists and convicts even after they have been honourably acquitted by the court. For example, in July 2019, Abdul Wahid Shaikh’s name was listed as a ‘convict’ in an order imposing a ban on the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI). To get his name removed, he had to move the Delhi High Court. In recent months, he said, he was questioned by the police in cases in which he had no connection.

Bilal Kagzi

Bilal Kagzi (38) is a lawyer practising in Surat. He was charged in a terror-related case for which he spent four months in jail in 2008. He observed: “Since I am petitioning for cases related to human rights violations and police brutality, I am routinely threatened by the police that I would be killed in an encounter if I don’t stop working about human rights.” Over the years, he has been named in six false cases. His name has been dropped from two cases and the remaining are pending. Last year, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) issued a show-cause notice to the Chief Secretary of Gujarat asking why the Gujarat government should not pay Rs.1 lakh as compensation to Bilal Kagzi for the Surat Police falsely implicating him in a criminal case. The government has challenged the order and he is yet to receive the compensation. “No matter, whether I get the compensation or not, or even if I am implicated in other cases, I will continue to fight against injustice,” Bilal Kagzi said. “Why should I stop fighting? Is it wrong to fight for justice and human rights?” The 38-year-old lawyer believes that if someone like him, with the knowledge and power of law, gets intimidated, then it is all the more difficult for ordinary citizens to survive.

Mohammad Aamir Khan feels that slowly but steadily the narratives around the terror accused are changing. When he was abducted, tortured and framed in 18 bomb blast cases, there were not many to speak about his innocence, but today, there are at least a few, but consistent, voices raising concerns and ready to take up their cases. Abdul Wahid Shaikh is hopeful that sooner or later his co-accused and others falsely implicated in terror cases will be acquitted. “And for that to happen, it is important to keep the struggle alive,” he added.

Mahtab Alam is a Delhi-based journalist and researcher. He has previously worked with Amnesty International India.

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