Saturday, Sep 30, 2023

'When I Covered My Genitals, They Said Don't Be Shy'

'When I Covered My Genitals, They Said Don't Be Shy'

Acquitted after spending 14 yrs in jail on terror charges, Md Aamir Khan's chilling interview.

Courtesy: Anhad

Arrested by Delhi police at the age of 18 and accused of masterminding 17 bomb blasts in and around the national capital — and acquitted in all cases — Mohammad Aamir Khan (35) tells his story in a book being published this month. He wants to become a librarian, he tells Pavithra S Rangan in a chilling interview.

In 2015 the NHRC took suo muto cognizance of your case...

What the government should have done years ago, the National Human Rights Commission has done now. They have asked the Delhi government to provide a 'relief' of at least Rs 5 lakh. I am very thankful to NHRC for taking this case up. However no amount of money can compensate the losses I have suffered from this wrong confinement. The commission understands this and has, therefore, called it relief, and not compensation. NHRC'S Justice D. Murugesan investigated the matter after the media reported my story. He sent notices to the Delhi Police Commissioner and Home Secretary. Even I received a notice asking for my version in May 2014. Now, one and a half years after my reply, the NHRC has asked the Delhi government to take appropriate action.

The six-week notice given to the AAP government for a reply has expired, but I haven't heard from them. I hope the government takes responsibility for its actions and helps me secure a decent livelihood. AAP MLA Amanatullah said that he had taken up my matter in the Vidhan Sabha. But, officially, I have so far not heard anything from the government.

Having spent almost a decade and a half in prison, did you come across other instances of innocent people being falsely incarcerated?

From 1998 to 2004, there were far too many encounters and arrests because of the regime's ideology at that time. A free hand was given to the Delhi police and several innocent people were put behind bars. At different points of time during my arrest, I saw a swell in a certain kind of people being arrested. If at one time most of them were Kashmiris, another time they were the Sikhs. The political atmosphere at a time determines who will be in prison. Even as I had lost the chance to pursue higher education, the jail itself became a university to me. It was a place where I learnt the intricacies of the law, observed how political philosophy played out.

Curiously, You were not out of jail even for a single day in all those years. You must have tried to secure bail?

The Indian legal system is like a complex web, from which the big and powerful creatures easily find their way out. The poor and vulnerable suffer the most in this system. Moreover, my lawyers had told me that securing a bail in terror cases is usually out of question. The injustice that over 100 Maruti workers continue to face, for the death of a manager, remains testimony to this. Honestly, if the 100-odd workers who are in jail actually tried to kill one man, you wouldn't have even found his bones. Yet, the courts refuse to grant them bail.

Even after I was acquitted of all cases by the Delhi High Court, I was refused bail in Ghaziabad, where I pleaded for one because my mother was completely paralysed and there was no one to care of her. My father passed away three years after I was arrested. After my acquittal in Delhi in 2008, I was in the Kaithal prison in Haryana briefly and the Dasna jail in Ghaziabad for over four years. A case like Slaman Khan's, where bail is granted almost immediately, is an exception for poor people like us.

What has been the most difficult to cope with since your release from prison?

When I came out of jail after 14 years, the world around me had changed much more than I had changed as a person. It was all beyond recognition. The Delhi Metro had been built and even children in the Metro were not as amazed as I was. I felt like an alien in a new world. There was Whatsapp, the profusion of the Internet, Facebook, Email and several such things which I am still trying to get a grip on. It took me time to come to terms with the fact that I have to learn the new ways in order to survive here. After three years, I am still discovering, observing and learning.

The changes within my family and that in the world outside were both very overwhelming. My father passed away in 2001 and my mother who single-handedly ran from pillar to post fighting my case for over a decade became completely paralysed after a stroke. She passed away last year. Many try to sympathise with my suffering, but few can really empathise with what my family have been put through. Any relative who would come to visit my parents would be taken to the police station and threatened about their interactions with the family of a 'terrorist'. They underwent a terrible social boycott.

Does that social stigma still persist?

After I came out of jail in 2012, several newspapers carried my story and I am extremely thankful to them. Those initial months after my release, I spent days going to each one of my relative's homes every morning and distributing these papers so that they would read the truth about me and not be scared of me. After my mother passed away I wanted to have a family, I wanted to meet my relatives.

Moreover, the memory of my abduction — I will not call it an arrest as it was done in the most brutal, unlawful manner — is still stark in my memory. So are memories from years of torture in the jail, the death of my parents, the lack of an education and much more. They took me in as an innocent teenager, kept me in a cell like enclosure for a week, stripped and tortured me. When I covered my genitals, they said to me, don't be shy. This is our work, we see all this every day. I couldn't imagine that these people were policemen. I was almost certain they were goons who wanted something. For a week, they gave me electric shock, poured cold water on me, didn't let me sleep, gave me no food and finally one day asked me to sign a disclosure statement accepting that I had masterminded all the bomb blasts in and around the capital between 1996 and 1997. I myself was barely 18 years old then.

When I refused meekly, they started peeling the nail off my index finger. I just couldn't take that torture anymore. There was nothing to be said, I simply signed it. That was the first day I saw these men in uniform. They said they would produce me in court that day and that I should agree to having committed all those crimes. They didn't have to beat me anymore to ensure that I said all this. After that week's torture, even one look from them was enough to terrorise me to death. All these images are so vivid in my head and I am undergoing therapy even now. Over the last three years, I've painstakingly tried to rebuild my life from scratch.

Today you're married and have a daughter. How do you manage securing a decent livelihood for yourself?

It's ironic but even now I'm a victim of the system. I was working full time with a human rights organisation called Anhad after my release. However, last year, after the attack on NGOs and questions being raised on funding and income tax, many of the NGO's funding agencies are not interested in funding our projects anymore. Things had reached a stage where there was no money to pay salaries anymore. I, therefore, had to leave four months ago. Now I am engaged in a project on prison reform by social activist Harsh Mander's organisation, Centre for Equity Studies.

Given the current situation, how do you see your future? What are your demands for relief from the State?

The NHRC order has given me some hope towards a decent future. It is not about relief amount. More than the money, I want a decent, respectable job. By respectable, I mean that they should understand that I do not have the degrees for highly placed jobs because I was robbed of those valuable years. However, I have read all kinds of books and educated myself to the extent possible in the prison. I want them to take account of my capabilities and give me a suitable job, instead of a third grade job for the sake of it. In fact, I want to be a librarian. I made books my only friends throughout my jail term and this is something I would love to do. I could really take care of my daughter well.


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