MARIAM Rasheeda, the Maldives national who was arrested in connection with the ISRO spy scandal and then set free a year ago, is languishing in a Kerala prison for want of the Rs 20,000 bail money. Embittered about her India experience and alleging police harassment, she says she can never forget the ordeal of the past two years. "I landed in jail only because I did not agree to have sex with Inspector Vijayan (he manned the Foreigners' Registration Office cell). I had gone to see him to extend my visa. I had confirmed air tickets to leave India but flights were cancelled. Vijayan took my passport and the tickets. Some days later he came to my hotel room and asked my friend Fouzia to wait outside... he came and stood close to me and put his arm around my shoulder. I pushed him away and asked him to get out...."
Inspector Vijayan claims he impounded Rasheeda's visa on grounds of national security. He says telephone print-outs obtained from Hotel Samrat indicated that Rasheeda was in frequent touch with ISRO scientist Sasikumar, one of the co-accused in the case.
A diary belonging to her contained suspicious entries in her handwriting. There were names of Maldivian nationals involved in subversive activities against Maldives President Abdul Gayoom. During interrogation, Mariam had mentioned a woman called Suhara of Colombo, whom the police identified as an ISI agent. All this strengthened the suspicion of espionage.
Rasheeda singles out Vijayan and his police force for her woes: "I was badly beaten in police custody. I was kept inside a room and questioned round the clock by 15 officials. I was not allowed to sit. No police women were present. I am embarrassed to mention the things that were done to me. I ran around the room in panic. The policemen caught me and tied my hands to the window grill. Vijayan lifted a chair and hit me on the legs. Then he started slapping my face...." Vijayan denies Mariam's allegation of sexual misconduct as well. He also dismisses the torture charge, saying he was told by IB officials to leave the interrogation room. But Rasheeda's counsel Prasad Gandhi contends that Vijayan seized her passport and air tickets to prevent her from flying home before her visa lapsed.
Taking cognisance of various versions, the Ernakulam Chief Judicial Magistrate Mohana Rajan acquitted Rasheeda of the charge of overstaying. The judgment dated November 14, 1995, observed that Inspector Vijayan had seized her air tickets for the purpose of arresting her for overstaying. On May 2, 1996, the court discharged the accused in the espionage case for lack of evidence to sustain the charge.
Currently in Viyyur Central Prison, Thrissur, where she says she is being treated better, Rasheeda is apprehensive about freedom: "Life in jail is harsh, but if I step out I may be killed. The Thiruvananthapuram police made my life hell. They beat me, cheated me and denied me food and water. The conditions got better in Thrissur jail. The police and the jailers treat me well."
Rasheeda's friend, Fouzia Hassan, is also in jail for suspected espionage activity. The charge could not be proved and the court let off the two women. But they remained in prison in view of other suits pending against them. Eventually Fouzia was cleared of all charges and released, only to be rearrested under the National Security Act.
The extended incarceration of the two women is a sequel to an executive order passed by the Kerala government to re-investigate the ISRO spy scandal involving the two Maldives women and four Indian nationals, two of them senior scientists of the Indian Space Research Organisation at Thiruvananthapuram.
The Kerala government had entrusted the investigation to the CBI. The agency contradicted the findings of the Kerala Police and rejected the espionage charge as false and baseless. The chief judicial magistrate's court of Ernakulam discharged the case on the basis of the CBI report. The Kerala government then issued an executive order to re-investigate the case, which was ratified by the chief judicial magistrate of Thiruvananthapuram. The six accused challenged the government order in the Supreme Court.
The fate of the two Maldivian nationals and four others will be decided by the Supreme Court in another week. Rasheeda was charged with violating Rule 7 of the Foreigners Order and Section 14 of the Foreigners Act and a case was registered at the Vanchiyoor police station. On March 13, 1994, another case was registered for alleged espionage activity. Included as co-accused were Fouzia Hassan, ISRO scientists Sasi-kumar and Nambi Narayanan, a Ban-galore-based businessman, S. Sharma, and the Russian space agency Glavkosmos' representative, Chandrasekhar.
The ISRO spy scandal left a trail of ruined reputations. It proved the undoing of Congress leader K. Karunakaran, whose patronage of Inspector General of Police Raman Srivastava hurt his public ratings at the time. The police had linked Srivastava to Mariam Rasheeda. The two scientists Sasikumar and Nambi Narayanan have since been transferred out of Thiruvananthapuram. And the Kerala police faced a credibility crisis in the wake of an adverse judicial verdict.