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Like any other Class XII student across the country, Turab Kazmi ought to have been busy with his board exams this time of the year. Instead, he finds himself defending his father and trying to clear his name of the several damning charges thrown at him by the police and the media. “It really hurts to see someone who has spent over 25 years trying to report the truth and not worry about his family being accused and framed this way,” he says, seated in his father’s office-cum-residence in central Delhi.
A bag with an Air Arabia tag and an Iranian Press TV logo in the small room tell the story of senior freelance journalist Syed Mohammed Ahmed Kazmi’s close professional engagement with West Asia. A fluent Arabic and Persian speaker, a well-known critic of Israel and a government-accredited journalist for over two decades, Kazmi had covered the 2003 attack on Iraq and was a regular freelance contributor to Iran’s Radio Tehran. But on March 6, after reading out the morning news bulletin on DD Urdu, he found himself in the news when he was arrested by the Delhi police on suspicions of having helped three Iranian nationals execute a bomb blast in the capital on February 13. The blast had injured the wife of an Israeli diplomat and her driver.
Back home, like on any other day, Turab was waiting for his father to come for mid-day prayers and lunch but he didn’t. The family panicked after his phone remained unreachable and frantic calls to colleagues and friends yielded no information. It was only at 9.30 pm, when plainclothesmen from the police walked into their house for a search that they realised he had been arrested. “They still didn’t give any information but took away a laptop and a desktop, my father’s PIB card, passport and other documents; even my mother’s mobile phone,” says Turab. His elder brother then went to the nearby Lodhi Colony police station, where he was told that Kazmi Sr was being held at the neighbouring special branch office. “I waited there till 2.30 am to see him. That’s when I learnt he had been picked up at 11.30 am the day before,” says Shauzab.
The slander started on day one with many channels describing him an “Iranian”. The Kazmis are from Meerut.
Vijay Agarwal, the Kazmis’ lawyer, claims the police did not even follow established procedure in his arrest. “Kazmi was arrested at 11.30 am, they’ve shown the time as 8.30 pm,” he says. The ‘delay’ was obviously so that they could hold onto him longer before presenting him in court. (Detainees must be produced in court within 24 hours of arrest.) Held under the severe Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, Kazmi has been remanded to a 20-day police custody. The uapa allows prolonged custody of a suspect unlike under IPC rules which says the order has to be renewed every few days in court. “With this long custody, we fear the police will torture him to extract a confession,” says Turab. The brothers allege that their father is already being grilled mentally. “He is not being allowed to sleep, is given salty food to eat, and is even being denied drinking water. The police threatened him saying they will ruin our careers,” adds Shauzab. The Kazmis have now approached the court complaining that foreign agencies are questioning their father and asking that his 20-day custody be brought to an end.
It hasn’t helped that ever since his arrest, many ‘stories’ have been floating around in the media. While a leading English daily claimed his number was on the caller list of one of the Bangkok bombers, another made a counter-claim the next day that the story was incorrect. His sons also refute allegations that the police recovered from Kazmi’s residence a photo of him with the suspected bomber.
The slander started on day one of his arrest with many channels describing him as an “Iranian national”. “They pulled that detail only after I called and complained,” says Shauzab (the Kazmis are originally from Meerut). Reacting to the smear campaign, the Delhi Union of Journalists (DUJ) finally had to issue an official statement, asking journalists to cross-check allegations with the Kazmi family. DUJ general secretary S.K. Pande says “Kazmi was clearly subjected to a ‘trial by media’ as happened in the Iftikhar Gilani case. The media’s responsibility should be to question events without adding to the existing tensions”.
But there was worse in store. On March 13, a Hindi paper claimed Kazmi was riding the motorcycle with the bomber on pillion during the attack. Son Turab is amazed by the duplicity, “I actually have a photograph of him outside the Congress HQ at a protest meet taking place there during the time of the attack.” The protest was against the alleged encroachment of prime land under a shrine next to Kazmi’s residence and a resultant police lathicharge in January when worshippers tried to force their way. (In fact, some have linked the arrest to the incident since Kazmi has been a vocal critic of the police action and landgrab.)
Meanwhile, Delhi police commissioner B.K. Gupta, addressing the media on Friday, reiterated that Kazmi’s arrest had helped unravel the conspiracy. “He was instrumental in getting the Israeli embassy and surrounding areas recced by the suspected persons of Iranian origin. He has been arrested as a facilitator,” said Gupta. “Investigations revealed that he has been in contact with the suspects for some time. It was also found the Kazmis have been receiving foreign remittances regularly. His wife received Rs 18,78,500 and Kazmi Rs 3,80,000. The couple have not been able to explain the source of the money.” The Enforcement Directorate and Financial Investigation Unit have now been asked to probe the money trail. Shauzab, though, refuted the allegations and claimed his mother has only around Rs 2,000 in her account and demanded that any evidence to the contrary be made public. Reacting to police claims that Kazmi was in touch with the Iranian suspects, Shauzab said his father was in regular touch with many Iranians for professional reasons. Turab also says the moped the police claimed was used for the recce “was so old it wouldn’t even start; they had to tow it away”. The police commissioner refuted this also. In a related development, the Iranian ambassador was called by the mea on Friday and briefed about the developments.
Senior journalist Saeed Naqvi, who’s worked with Kazmi and has been arguing publicly for him, says, “He was arrested to please those pressuring the government to create a link between Iran and the attack. Muslim and Urdu journalists leave a bad odour these days.” He says it’s part of a larger campaign against journalists who seek to challenge the “global information order”, especially about unfolding events in West Asia. “For example, when the Israelis killed off Iranian nuclear scientists, the debate in the US media was not about whether this was right or wrong but about whether it helped retard Iran’s nuclear programme. Clearly, there are two sets of rules working here.”
A situation which, as each day passes, seems more and more plausible. For on March 11, the police raided another senior journalist’s flat in New Delhi. John Cherian, who travelled with Kazmi to Syria in February and is also known for his strident anti-Israel views, found the police in his flat on suspicions that he had concealed smack. The police later apologised for mistaking his flat (No. 107) for flat No. 160, the excuse being that the two sound “similar in Hindi”. Unlike the pat ending in this case, Kazmi’s story is yet to unravel itself fully.
By Debarshi Dasgupta and Chandrani Banerjee