Solitary confinement

The dreaded cell of Jundal

Print edition : January 08, 2016

Sayed Zabiuddin Ansari alias Abu Jundal, who was arrested on June 21, 2012. Photo: PTI

Ajmal Kasab, the lone terrorist who survived the 26/11 attack, was lodged in a specially rebuilt fortified cell called "Barrack 12" in the Arthur Road Jail in Mumbai. Photo: PTI

A TADA court under construction inside the high-security Arthur Road Jail in 2009. The jail has housed several major criminals. Photo: VIVEK BENDRE

Abu Salem. Photo: SHASHI ASHIWAL

Mustafa Dossa. Photo: PTI

Abu Jundal, the suspected Lashkar-e-Taiba operative who is accused of masterminding the Mumbai terror attacks, is protesting against his solitary confinement in a heavily fortified cell at the Arthur Road Jail in Mumbai.

When Sayed Zabiuddin Ansari aka Abu Jundal was deported to India from Saudi Arabia in 2012, India was said to have netted a prize catch. Jundal, a suspected Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) operative, was listed by India as one of its most wanted terrorists. He is accused of masterminding the Mumbai terror attack on November 26, 2008, the German bakery blasts in 2010, the Aurangabad arms haul in 2006, and several terror attacks in the country. It took the Indian authorities close to two years of diplomatic negotiations and relentless pursuit across three countries to bring Jundal to India.

There was absolutely no margin of error once the fugitive was arrested. Therefore, it was critical for the Indian authorities to house him in a secure and inaccessible prison. Mumbai’s Arthur Road Jail had only recently accommodated Ajmal Kasab, the lone terrorist who survived the 26/11 attack, in a specially rebuilt fortified cell called “Barrack 12”. According to sources, the cell is bullet-, bomb- and chemical-proof. The prison was perhaps the best equipped to imprison a criminal of Jundal’s stature. Since the execution of Kasab, it was lying empty, waiting for the next terrorist to move in.

Jundal has been languishing in solitary confinement in Barrack 12 for close to three years. In August 2015, he protested against his confinement by going on an indefinite hunger strike. Given that Jundal was wanted for training terrorists and would have himself gone through the rigours of extremist training as an) LeT operative, it was assumed that he would be able to cope with the most trying circumstances. However, the isolation under harsh conditions broke Jundal’s spirit; 40 days into the hunger strike, Jundal gave up.

His lawyer Asif Naqvi told Frontline: “His body was collapsing. He had to be force-fed and so he gave up the fast. They have not given in to any of his demands. He is still in isolation in the same conditions.” Jundal filed an application requesting the authorities to house him in another cell. The application was pending, Naqvi said. Police sources, however, said that some issues of the “prisoner” had been looked into. For instance, they said, Jundal did not spend all his time in solitary confinement any more. A group of activists who filed a petition on Jundal’s solitary confinement said that if “a seasoned terrorist” such as Jundal is protesting against the prison conditions and the law, one could imagine the plight of thousands of poor undertrials who have lived through torture and misery for years with little legal recourse. Solitary confinement, however, was a different ball game, they said.

Cell conditions

According to information received by human rights activists in response to their petition under the Right to Information (RTI) Act seeking details about solitary confinement, the special cell is protected by layers of metal and an unbreakable glass sheath. A high-voltage light, with the switch obviously placed outside the cell, is on all the time so that the prisoner does not know whether it is day or night. The cell has no windows, and air supply is extremely limited. A small trapdoor allows prison guards to pass food to the prisoner. “It resembles a vault,” a source said. “Jundal is taken out occasionally but kept away from the other prisoners,” the source said.

Located at one end of the jail, Barrack 12 has direct access to a special court, which was built on the premises to try those arrested in the 1992-93 serial blast case. The court has become a permanent structure to try high-security prisoners so that they do not have to travel far. This was required in the case of Kasab, who was convicted and sentenced to death by hanging at this court. In Jundal’s case, the Maharashtra government has passed a special order exempting him from appearing in the court. Jundal can testify through a videoconferencing facility. Any respite that Jundal would have got when he is taken to the court is, therefore, squashed.

Correspondence (made public through an RTI petition) between Swati Sathe, Additional Director General of Police Prisons, and Amitesh Kumar, Anti-Terror Squad chief, at the time reveal that it was made categorically clear that the terrorist would not be able to interact with other prisoners. They also said that his safety could not be compromised as it was important for the investigation and interrogation to go through smoothly.

Jundal claims the prosecution and the police were keeping him in isolation in order to pressurise him into confessing and pleading guilty. In his application to the court, he said: “The prosecution and the police authorities are misguiding the court with false information about a threat to my life just to keep me in isolation.”

Lawyers for the prisoner argue that the Supreme Court has ruled that safety and security were spurious grounds to keep prisoners in isolation. Naqvi quotes a ruling by the late Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer in Sunil Batra vs Delhi Administration: “Civilised consciousness is hostile to torture within the walled campus. We hold that solitary confinement, cellular segregation and marginally modified editions of the same process are inhuman and irrational.”

Interestingly, a group of human rights activists, organisations and academics—which include Professor Upendra Baxi, the film-maker Anand Patwardhan, the communal harmony campaigner and writer Ram Puniyani, the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, the Alternative Law Forum and the People’s Union of Democratic Rights—have signed a petition appealing to the Chief Minister and Governor of Maharashtra to intervene in Jundal’s case as they believe his incarceration is illegal and unconstitutional.

“They have caught and put him in jail. The law will take its course. Why should he have to be treated in this inhuman fashion? Human rights conventions across the world say solitary confinement is illegal,” an activist said.

But the police, the prison authorities and investigators see human rights issues as mumbo jumbo. According to a source explaining their rationale, it takes violence and torture to break such criminals, to crack the case and perhaps save the country from future attacks. “When you are dealing with a terrorist, he is already conditioned to take hardship. We have to protect our country at whatever cost, and if that requires us to use a few tactics to make him reveal information, those tactics will be used,” the source said.

Why Jundal?

What makes Jundal a prize catch and a dangerous terrorist? According to the police, Jundal’s is the proverbial story of a boy from a small town brainwashed after the 2002 Gujarat riots to avenge the attacks on Muslims by joining Islamist militants across the border. Born in Beed, Maharashtra, as Zabiuddin Ansari, Jundal came from a modest background. The lack of livelihood opportunities and the attraction towards jehadi groups found him in Pakistan in 2002, where he trained under the LeT. Apparently, he worked in Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Eventually, he rose in the ranks and began recruiting cadre for the LeT and the Indian Mujahideen.

Investigators said that interrogation of Kasab and another terrorist who was caught had revealed that Jundal was the main handler of the Mumbai terror attack. Investigations and voice-matching technology reportedly revealed that Jundal recruited the terrorists and trained them to speak Hindi and that it was his voice that was heard issuing instructions from a control room in Karachi during those three days of terror in Mumbai, which claimed 170 lives and left more than 300 injured. (Ten terrorists entered the city on November 26, 2008, via the sea and went on a killing spree at some crucial locations in south Mumbai.)

Although the Indian authorities had been chasing Jundal since 2008, he remained elusive as he had a Pakistan passport, which means that technically countries such as Saudi Arabia (where he was hiding) could not deport him to India. Saudi Arabia, with the help of the United States, permitted a DNA test, and once it was confirmed that Jundal was from India, it allowed his deportation, which resulted in his arrest on arrival in India.

Arthur Road Jail

The high-security Arthur Road Jail is notorious for its nefarious activities. Located in central Mumbai, the jail was built in 1924 and upgraded into a Central Jail in 1994. The rampant corruption in the prison and the nexus that exists between prisoner dons and jail authorities is now part of Mumbai lore. For instance, a prisoner can get any luxury for a price. Incarcerated gang leaders reportedly continue to conduct their operations from the prison. Reports of custodial deaths get swept under the carpet. The jail has housed several major criminals such as the mafiosi Abu Salem and Mustafa Dossa. The added feature of a court within its premises, which is not found in other prisons, has made Arthur Road Jail a priority prison to house criminals, such as the Mumbai don Chhota Rajan, who are wanted for serious crimes and cannot be brought out in public for fear that they may be attacked.

The only ray of hope for Jundal is that on November 4 a Sessions Court framed charges against him in connection with the 2008 attack. Naqvi said the cases against Jundal were “finally moving”. The special prosecutor Ujwal Nikam said Jundal pleaded innocence. The prosecution filed draft charges against Jundal in December 2013. He has been charged on 23 different counts under the Indian Penal Code (IPC), which include criminal conspiracy, waging war against the nation, murder, attempt to murder, kidnapping for murder, cheating, forgery and abetting the terror attack from Pakistan. He has also been charged under sections of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, the Explosives Act, the Explosive Substances Act, the Prevention of Damage to Public Property Act, the Railways Act and the Customs Act. Jundal has revealed that the Indian Mujahideen and Pakistan had a hand in the 26/11 attack. He has, however, claimed that he is innocent.