Opinion

Terror Suspects Then, Innocent Now: But Who Will Pay For The Lost Years In Jail?

The life a terror accused returns to after ­acquittal is nothing like what was snatched away. The tragedy doesn’t end outside jail.

Terror Suspects Then, Innocent Now: But Who Will Pay For The Lost Years In Jail?
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Cases Under UAPA in J&K

  • 255 2019
  • 245 2018
  • 156 2017
  • 161 2016
  • 59 2015
  • 45 2014

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Three months after his elder brother Bashir Ahmad Baba’s arrest in March 2010, Nazir Ahmad, then 27, visited him along with his father Ghulam Nabi at the Vadodara central jail in Gujarat. “He was in a terrible shape. I cried for a long time, thinking he would never step out of jail,” recalls Nazir, sitting in a room where visitors are meeting his recently released brother. “If your kin is in prison, then it is always a lonely fight, which breaks you and your family. Your brother is in jail and your parents are dying to see him, but no one else is bothered,” says Nazir, who was a salesman at a shop in Srinagar’s Lal Chowk when his brother was arrested. Bashir, then an assistant project officer with Kemaya Foundation, was sent to Gujarat for a training programme. Gujarat’s anti-terrorism squad (ATS) detained him on the seventh day of the training and produced him before the media as the “Pepsi bomber”. Quoting “ATS sources”, the media accused Bashir of being an expert in making bombs using soft drink cans.

“I was arrested on February 27, 2010, but they rec­orded the date of arrest as March 14,” says Bashir. “I was tortured. They wanted me to confess something, but I had no idea what it was.” The ATS accused Bashir of visiting Gujarat to recruit young men for “terrorist training” in Pakistan. More than a decade later, on June 19, 2021, a judge of the Anand district court in Gujarat obser­ved in his ­verdict that “the charge against the acc­used that he stayed back in Gujarat and was found in Anand on March 13 and that he had received fin­ancial aid in order to set up a terror network in Gujarat has not been proven sufficiently....”

With phone calls not allowed, Bashir used to write letters to his family from the high-security ward of Vadodara jail. The letters show he wanted the trial to finish quickly.  In 2014, Bashir’s father was diagnosed with colon ­cancer. When he died three years later, Bashir’s lawyer broke the news to him in jail. “I could only cry, while he consoled me,” says Bashir, who completed his MA in political science and public administration, besides a diploma in intellectual ­property rights, during his time in prison. “My studies kept me busy and I hoped I would be released one day.” Now that he is home, Bashir wonders what he would do to make a living—the computer institute he was running before his arrest was sold to meet his jail expenses. “The only thing I am confident about is I make a good Gujarati tea,” he says laughing.

While Bashir was meeting visitors, Latief Ahmad Waja of Srinagar’s Fatakadal area was alone at his home. He spent 23 years in jail until July 2019, when the Rajasthan High Court acquitted him and four other Kashmiris in the Samleti blast case (on May 22, 1996, there was a bomb blast in a bus on the Jaipur-Agra highway near Samleti village in Dausa, Rajasthan). “I don’t know what to do now,” he says. The family’s flour mill and shop were sold to meet his jail expenses and the lawyer’s fees.

In 1996, Latief’s father, Ghulam Mohammad Waja, had sent him to Nepal for working at a ­relative’s carpet shop. He had just completed his Class 12. One morning, the Delhi Police picked him up from Nepal and brought him to Delhi. Later the police claimed he was arrested from a hotel in Mussoorie, Uttarakhand. He was accused of being involved in the Lajpat Nagar blasts in Delhi, which happened a day before the Samleti blast. The Delhi High Court acquitted Latief and two others in the Lajpat Nagar case in November 2012.

During his interrogation in 1996, Latief claims, a Gujarat police officer threatened to frame him in another case and take him to Ahmedabad. He was shifted from Delhi’s Tihar jail to a prison in Jaipur and then to Ahmedabad. A year later, his father located him in an Ahmedabad jail after visiting several jails. “As a high-security prisoner, I was in chains. My father saw me in that condition and I could see his pain,” Latief recalls. His younger brother Tariq, who was in Class 7 in 1996, spent the following years visiting Latief in jail, and could not continue his studies.

In 2006, when Latief’s father visited him in Tihar jail, the lawyer told him that it would take another 10-15 years to get him released. “My father couldn’t bear it. He was deeply attached to my elder brother,” says Tariq. “A few days later, he complained of chest pain. I took him to hospital, but we couldn’t save him.”

On returning home after his release, Latief couldn’t recognise anyone except Tariq and few relatives who had visited him in jail. “I started working at 19, but I was arrested. My brother couldn’t study, my father died and I have no money or job. I asked a lawyer about filing a case to demand compensation for 23 years of my life. He looked puzzled and didn’t say anything. As if it’s something unusual,” says Latief.

Among the few who managed to start life afresh after a long stint in jail is Mohammad Hussain Fazili of Srinagar’s Bachpora locality. Fazili was 31 when he was arrested in his house on November 21, 2005, and flown blindfolded to Delhi the next day. Accused of carrying out serial blasts in the ­national capital on October 29, 2005, he was eventually ­acquitted of all charges on February 16, 2017. He married a few months ago and runs a small handicrafts business. “If I think about what happened to me during my 12 years in jail, I wouldn’t step out of my room,” he says. “Those 12 years took everything from us. One day after my release, when there was a knock on the door, my partially paralysed mother managed to drag herself there before me and told the police that she would not let them take me again.” The police had come for a routine inquiry.

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During his years in prison, nobody from his family could visit him. “We couldn’t afford it,” he says. “When I came home ­finally, I saw an old woman crying. Others told me she is my mother. I couldn’t recognise her after all those years. They took away 12 years of my life. I don’t want to recall that period and just want to live my life.”

Among Fazili’s co-accused in the Delhi blasts case is another Srinagar resident, Tariq Ahmad Dar, who is now a faith healer counselling people suffering from anxiety, depression and ­terminal illnesses. Soft-spoken and fluent in English, Tariq says he turned to spirituality in prison. He was working for a multinational pharmaceutical firm in the Valley when Delhi Police arrested him on November 10, 2005. He was on his way to Srinagar from South Kashmir to pick up his pregnant wife from a clinic. He didn’t see his daughter, born shortly after his arrest, for 12 years.

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On February 16, 2017, Dar was convicted under sections 38 and 39 of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, but ­acquitted of all other charges. As he had already spent more than the jail time he was sentenced to, the judge ordered his immediate release. “When I came back, I couldn’t ­recognise the roads. It took me some time to get familiarised with everything,” Dar says. He worked as a marketing manager with a news magazine for some time and then become a ­distributor of an electronic goods company.

“In jail, you are on your own. Some take it as a challenge and adapt to jail life. Some study, some exercise, some prefer ­spirituality. I completed my MA in English and MBA in ­marketing. I spent eight years in a single cell, which I ­consider the best ­period of my life. In Tihar, we used to read hundreds of ­chargesheets. Show me a chargesheet and I will tell you how many years the accused will be in jail,” Dar says and breaks into laughter.

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(This appeared in the print edition as "Lonely Road to Freedom")

By Naseer Ganai in Srinagar

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