Abu Salem is finally in the custody of the police in India, but will his extradition further delay a verdict in the 1993 serial explosions case?ANUPAMA KATAKAM in Mumbai
ABU SALEM, one of India's most wanted leaders of organised crime and a prime accused in the 1993 Mumbai serial explosions case, was finally extradited from Portugal on November 11. It was after three years of protracted diplomatic wrangling that the gangster was brought to Mumbai to be tried in some 25 cases, which include murder and extortion, apart from involvement in the blasts. In 1993, 12 serial explosions ripped through Mumbai, killing 257 innocent people and injuring over 700. Salem is held responsible for providing arms and securing ammunition for the terror attack, the worst in the city's history.
By bringing back Salem, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) has definitely caught a big fish. CBI officers believe that not only will his interrogation unravel the plot behind the 1993 blasts, but that if he can be persuaded to confess he might provide information about the whereabouts of Dawood Ibrahim and his involvement with the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) of Pakistan. Yet, there is some scepticism about whether Salem will pay for his crimes. After all, when has a criminal of his stature actually done time?
"Salem's return was a very delicate operation," an officer said. The Mumbai police, in fact, were not told of the plan until the last minute to prevent intelligence leaks. The gangster's moles, it seems, have infiltrated the force, thus severely compromising the city's police. So the agency did not take any chances, especially since Salem was wanted by Dawood Ibrahim's gang also.
A special plane brought Salem and his partner Monica Bedi, who was also arrested in Portugal with Salem in 2002, to Mumbai early on November 11. The couple were whisked into the city to be produced before the courts. While Salem was remanded in CBI custody until November 23, Bedi was flown to Hyderabad to face charges of passport forgery.
Salem and Bedi had been on the run for almost a decade when they were finally caught by the Portuguese authorities for trying to enter the country on forged passports in 2002. In spite of sustained diplomatic efforts to extradite the two, Portugal refused to oblige India. According to the CBI, the European Union was not willing to hand over a criminal to a country that still awarded capital punishment. The Indian government is said to have given an assurance that he would not be served the death sentence. The other reason for the extradition, says CBI Director O.P. Misra, is perhaps the international mood of low tolerance for terror activities.
It took eight cases to extradite the don. The most high-profile one is that of the serial explosions; there are also two passport offences and two murder cases, one of which involves the killing of actor Manisha Koirala's secretary Ajit Dewani. There is also a case of conspiracy to eliminate another gangster, Babloo Srivastav, and two extortion cases. In addition to these cases that the CBI will pursue, the Mumbai police say they have at least 25 cases against him. These include the murder of T-series owner Gulshan Kumar in 1997, the murder of businessman Pradeep Jain in 1995, the attempted murder of film producer Rakesh Roshan in January 2000, and the extortion and attempted murder of film director Rajeev Rai.
"It is certainly a great job to get one of the country's biggest fugitives," said Sivanandan, a police officer who is well known for breaking up the underworld nexus in Mumbai and bringing the Dawood gang to its knees. However, it is important to extract information from him soon. After all, it has been 12 years since the blasts, but there still has been no conviction.
Sivanandan said that important though the extradition of Abu Salem is, it might further delay a verdict in the case. "What needs to be done is to get him to squeal on Dawood - who is the biggest fish of them all," he said. He, however, felt there was enough evidence against Abu Salem. More than 600 witnesses have been examined and there are over 13,000 pages of oral testimony. "He has no way out."
Another officer, however, was sceptical and said that the commitment not to hang him virtually protects the man. "The gangster will be kept in a fair amount of luxury. He will have access to cell phones and other such facilities. His arrest has only delayed the blast trial even further," he said.
The special court set up for Salem's trial has questioned the decision to waive the death penalty (Salem will get a maximum of 25 years in jail if he is found guilty). The CBI's counsel has been asked to provide reasons for this condition in the extraditing process.
Abu Salem Abdul Qayoom Ansari traces his beginning in the world of organised crime to 1985 when he came from Mir Sarai in Uttar Pradesh to Mumbai to earn a living. According to the police, he stayed with a cousin who was a petty gangster. Salem's cousin initiated him into the ways of this world by involving him in extorting money from local shopkeepers. In 1989, he reportedly came in contact with Anees Ibrahim, Dawood Ibrahim's younger brother. After that, Salem rose rapidly in D-Company, becoming one of Dawoods's closest generals. He was caught by the police just once, in 1991, over a complaint filed by his in-laws. Salem was released a couple of days later and was never seen again by the police until November 11, 2005.
Salem operated mainly from abroad and his forte was extortion - primarily from the Hindi film industry. Most producers and directors have had some interaction with the gangster, who would demand overseas rights of the film to be transferred to him. Salem's downfall began with the murder of Gulshan Kumar. Dawood reportedly thought his general was getting a little too powerful and started sidelining him. Eventually, Salem's hold over the film industry and his rising status in the gang led to a split between him and Dawood. Salem is also said to have supplied weapons to actor Sanjay Dutt, which got the actor thrown in jail and implicated in the 1993 blasts.
Salem's obsession with the film industry attracted him to starlet Monica Bedi, who was desperate to make a name for herself. Salem used his various contacts and muscle power in the industry to secure work for her. She remained a B grade actress and eventually left the country with Salem.
When the police began rounding up suspects in the serial blasts case, Salem made himself scarce. He travelled across the globe with Bedi on fake passports, supposedly continuing his activities in India and West Asia. The law finally caught up with the couple in Portugal.