Cover story: Maharashtra

In Maharashtra, long battles ongoing for accused in terror cases

Print edition : April 09, 2021

Four of the accused in the 2006 Malegaon blast case, (from left) Salman Farsi, Farogh Magdumi, Noorulhuda and Raees Mansuri, after their acquittal in 2016. Photo: Deepak Salvi

Several individuals, especially Muslims, have been fighting tedious legal battles in terrorism-related cases in Maharashtra.

A decade after the 1992-93 serial blasts which took the lives of 247 people and injured about 1,400, Mumbai has witnessed 12 major attacks from 2002 to 2011. The finger of suspicion in each instance pointed to the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), the Indian Mujahideen (IM), or Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). More often than not, investigators rounded up Muslim youth from different areas in and around the city, accused them of being jehadis and charged them with terrorism. Several young men ended up behind bars and many others are fighting tedious legal battles which have caused irreparable damage to them financially and personally.

In one of the most sensational cases in Maharashtra, eight Muslim men from poor backgrounds spent a decade fighting for their innocence after being arrested for the 2006 Malegaon blasts. The police later uncovered a plot which involved Hindu extremists in the attack. All the accused were acquitted in 2016.

In the list of terror attacks in Mumbai and Maharashtra, draconian laws such as the Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act, 1999 (MCOCA), the Prevention of Terrorism Act, 2002 (POTA) and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967, (UAPA) are said to have been rampantly misused in the 2002 bombing case, the 2003 serial blasts case, and the Malegaon blasts case of 2006.

The 2002 bus bombing

On December 2, 2002, a bomb placed in a local BEST bus exploded at Ghatkopar, killing two persons and injuring 50. On the same day the police defused another bomb found in Andheri. Khwaja Yunus, a 27-year-old software engineer, was among the 19 arrested under POTA in connection with the case. Yunus allegedly died in police custody, although the police version is that he fled from their custody while being taken for interrogation. His body was never found.

Also read: How the UAPA and NIA are used to crush dissent

Yunus’ family said there was no proof to link him with the blast and filed cases against the state, including against the police officers concerned. Sachin Vaze, the encounter specialist who is an Assistant Police Inspector and is now under arrest in a murder case, was on the investigating team and he is alleged to have been singularly responsible for Yunus’ death. In 2004, Vaze was suspended. He left the force but was reinstated in 2020 on the premise that the force faced a shortage of officers because of the COVID-19 situation.

Of the remaining accused, nine were discharged within a year, one died and the remaining eight were acquitted by a special POTA court in 2005. No organisation took responsibility for the attack and the police apparently never found the real perpetrators of the crime.

The 2003 bombings

Year 2003 was perhaps the most horrifying, with as many as four blasts in a span of eight months in the city. On January 27, 2003, a bomb placed on a bicycle exploded at Vile Parle station, a suburb in west Mumbai. One person was killed and 25 were injured. Two months later, on March 13, a blast on a local train pulling into Mulund station killed 10 and injured 70. On July 28, a bomb exploded on a bus near Ghatkopar killing four persons and injuring 32. And in a major strike, on August 25, twin car bombs exploded around the same time at the Gateway of India and Zaveri Bazaar killing 50 people and injuring 200. The LeT took responsibility for the last attack and three people were arrested.

Following the Mulund blast, the Mumbai Police arrested Muslim youth from Padgah, a village near Thane, in the Greater Mumbai region. Padgah was on the police radar as the banned Students’ Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) once had an office there, and Saquib Nachen, a SIMI leader, belonged to Padgah. Residents of Padgah even now accuse the police of harassment. In 2003, a few senior members of the community alleged that weapons and ammunition were often planted in their area so as to implicate them.

Also read: Coercion in Kashmir through anti-terror laws

During the investigation of the train blasts, the police arrested 34 young men from this village, including Atif Mulla, under POTA. Mulla spent 33 months in jail. He was released on bail and finally acquitted after his father, Nasir Mulla, fought a financially draining legal battle.

To be fair to the Maharashtra Police, there was a reasonable amount of intelligence data that indicated that terror cells did exist in the State. In the aftermath of the 2002 Gujarat riots, in which thousands of Muslims lost their lives, police sources believe that there was a mood for retaliation and extremist groups were taking advantage of that. Informed sources told this magazine at that time that recruitment drives were rampant and this naturally led the police to Muslim-dominated areas whenever an attack took place.

Malegaon blast

On September 8, 2006, serial blasts soon after the Friday prayers at Hameediya Masjid in Malegaon killed more than 30 persons and injured at least 100. The local police arrested nine Muslim men from the area and charged them under the MCOCA. Some of them were so poor that they could not afford a lawyer. However, further investigation revealed a shocking plot which involved a complex Hindu right-wing conspiracy that involved perpetrators from across the country. In 2009, the Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS) arrested 11 extremists for the Malegaon blast.

Also read: Retreat of democracy through the terror of laws

In May 2016, all nine Muslim men who were initially charged for the blasts were acquitted. In an interview to Frontline when he was acquitted, Dr Farogh Magdumi said: “The five years I spent in jail ruined my life and my source of income came to an end. I spent all my money on the courts and in jail. At least, I had some finances; the others had absolutely none. I maintain my innocence and I am prepared to speak publicly about the wrong done to us and how our constitutional rights have been snatched. Anyone can check my background. It is completely clean.”

Raees Mansuri was another of the accused; his only crime was that he was related to a Shabbir Masiullah, who the police believed procured RDX to make the bombs. Masiullah died in a car accident and it was proved that he had nothing to do with the explosives. Meanwhile, Mansuri remained in jail. His imitation jewellery business collapsed and he was left penniless.

Noorulhuda Shamshodduha, a daily wage worker in Malegaon’s powerlooms, was accused of being a SIMI member. He languished in jail as he could not afford the legal fees. Mohammed Ansari, an imam, was in Yavatmal when the blast took place. He was once caught by the police for putting up religious posters and hence was an easy target. Ansari could not even afford to travel to Mumbai for the court hearings.

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