An ‘Acquitted Innocent’

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Is it fair to call every person booked under terrorism charges, a "deshdrohi, terrorist or mastermind"? Bilal Kuchay tells the story of Mohammad Amir Khan, whose life was ruined after being wrongfully arrested under terrorism charges and sent to jail for 14 years.

On the night of 20 February 1998, Mohammad Amir Khan, then an 18-year-old was ‘abducted’ by men in civvies in Delhi’s Sadr Bazaar area. He was hauled into a white Maruti gypsy. Blindfolded, hands tied, the teenager was taken to an unknown location, where he was continuously abused and tortured for seven days. Amir, who had walked to a neighbourhood hakeem to get medicines for the treatment of a persistent kidney stone problem, had no idea that soon thereafter he was going to be branded as a “terrorist, a deshdrohi and a mastermind” and would subsequently have to spend the next 14 years of life in different jails.

“When they removed the cloth from my eyes, I thought I have been kidnapped by goons. After one week’s torture and pain, I came to know they were men from the Delhi Police,” Amir said.

Amir, after the seven days of brutal torture and unbearable pain, was produced in Tees Hazari court, where he was accused of being a Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) terrorist. He was booked for planning 20 low-intensity bomb blasts in Delhi, Ghazhibad, Sonipat and Rohtak between October 1996 and December 1997.

 “I was charged of being involved in carrying out bomb blasts at multiple places during the year 1996 and 1997. There were total of 19 cases against me under charges of section 121, 122, 302 and 307 IPC and section 3 and 4 of Explosive Act,” Amir said.

“During my childhood, I would fly kites on the rooftop of our house in Old Delhi and would often dream of becoming a pilot and flying aeroplanes but those dreams were shattered, when I was wrongly arrested and accused of being a LeT terrorist,” he said. “I was charged of being involved in carrying out bomb blasts at multiple places during the year 1996 and 1997. There were total of 19 cases against me under charges of section 121, 122, 302 and 307 IPC and section 3 and 4 of Explosive Act,” Amir said.

Amir spent 14 years in jail, the time he says he would have spent in college, university or anywhere else, before he was acquitted of all the charges in court in 2012.

When he walked free at the age of 32, the capital city, where he was born and brought-up had changed. The world outside the jail had changed. “The streets I have walked through had changed in all these years. During my time, there was no metro, no mobile phones and not as many news channels. So much technology had come in and it was a new world for me,” he said. “It took me a lot of time to adjust,” he added.

 He has struggled financially as he has failed to get a decent job. He further said there is no rehabilitation policy for “acquitted innocents”.

The life that Amir was now going to live now had not just changed technologically but his family life was different as well. “My father died when I was in jail. My mother was paralysed.”

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Release of the Report of the “First Peoples’ Tribunal on Acquitted Innocents”

 

But life outside jail has not been as accepting and as rewarding as he would have imagined. He has struggled financially as he has failed to get a decent job. He further said there is no rehabilitation policy for “acquitted innocents”. “I can’t find a decent job. I can’t start a business because of the terror tag associated with me. It is the responsibility of the government to compensate and rehabilitate people like me. The government has a policy for surrendered militants but not for acquitted innocents,” he said.

He said that after being acquitted, he met the President of India, former chief minister of Delhi and Principal Secretary of Delhi, where he was assured full support from the government but nothing has happened.

 The report said that the state must pay compensation to “acquitted innocents” like Mohammad Amir Khan and action must be taken against the officers responsible for wrongful arrests and prosecution of people.

Wearing a sleeveless sweater over his sky-blue shirt, Amir Khan, now in his late 30s and the father of a two-year-old girl narrated his story to me in the corridors of Delhi’s Press Club on 10 December 2016, the day that is observed as World Human Rights Day. It was that very day, when the “First Peoples’ Tribunal on Acquitted Innocents”, which on October 2, had heard the testimonies of 15 people wrongfully imprisoned in terror cases and after years of incarceration acquitted by different courts, released its report. The former Chief Justice of Delhi High Court, A.P. Shah, released the report. The report said that the state must pay compensation to “acquitted innocents” like Mohammad Amir Khan and action must be taken against the officers responsible for wrongful arrests and prosecution of people. “The dignity of those acquitted must be restored. Thus, it is imperative that the harms inflicted on them must be redressed within the framework of rights rather than charity. Those who had been wrongly convicted should be entitled to compensation from the state,” Shah said.

He also said that it was deeply saddening to hear the testimonies of the lives destroyed. “That this was a result of callous and malafide action on the part of those whose duty is to uphold law was even more frustrating,” he said. Those responsible for the subverting the rule of law – police, prosecutors – must be held accountable, Shah said. “The amount to be paid as the compensation to the victims may be recovered from the officers responsible for the wrongful arrests and prosecution.”

 Shah said the first and most important step towards accountability would have to be the initiation of departmental enquiry against the officers concerned. “The erring officers must be suspended with immediate effect,” he said.

He further said that the wrongful arrests imply that the actual perpetrators of the terror attacks are targeting a community that will also fuel a sense of injustice. “If allowed to fester, this may itself become a source of insecurity. Justice must not only be done, but also seen to be done,” Shah said adding that “The testimonies make it amply clear that the investigating agencies need greater accountability and transparency.”

Shah said the first and most important step towards accountability would have to be the initiation of departmental enquiry against the officers concerned. “The erring officers must be suspended with immediate effect,” he said. “If found that the criminal prosecution against the acquitted persons was malafide and amounts to offences under section 194, 196 and 211 of the Indian Penal Code, the officers named by the exonerees should be prosecuted by the concerned courts,” he added. The report said that the victims of the wrongful prosecution or conviction continue to suffer even after their acquittals because of the social stigma, which should not happen and said there was a need for the launch of a campaign, which will highlight the plight of the acquitted persons at the community level. “A public function to welcome the acquitted when they are released from prison must be held in order to give them a sense of being accepted back in the society. There should be creation of a fund to help in the education of the children of those exonerate and the skill development of the exonerees.”

The report further said, though the jury stands for the unfettered freedom of the media and does not endorse censorship in any form, however it (media) must be cognizant of its power to devastate lives through sensationalism and partisan reporting. “Over the past few years, the courts have also taken a strong exception to news coverage which destroys a person’s reputation by creating a widespread perception of guilt, without any verdict in the court of law,” the report said. The report further said that the media should strictly refrain from pronouncing the suspects or arrestees as guilty. “The news media should function as objective institutions, and not as mere handmaidens of the investigating agencies. It is long established media ethics that reporters provide their readers and audience both sides of the story – not simply the state version,” it said. “All the media houses/publications/news channels concerned which have published defamatory material against the exonerees ought to widely publish unconditional apology to the exonerees.”

The report concluded that mere acquittals after years of incarceration are not enough and said that as the apex court observed, it is the duty of the state to apply the “healing balm”.

However, Mohammad Amir said, “Even though there will be no amount that can compensate my 14 years that I spent in the prison for crimes that I never committed, but, at least it can help me to begin a new life.” He says that the government must act upon the report released by the ‘Peoples’ Tribunal for Acquitted Innocents’ and implement the recommendations made by the tribunal.

“I don’t want anyone in future to face what I went through. I hope government of India will take this report seriously and will implement its recommendations,” he said.

 

 

Bilal Kuchay is a freelance journalist, who has been featured in Express Tribune, Himal Southasian and The Kashmir Monitor. He tweets as @BilalKuchayj

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