India aims to end unlawful detention of Muslims

Kolkata - Activists say many innocent young Muslims languish unnecessarily in Indian prisons for prolonged periods of time on charges of terrorism. The Indian government has announced plans to help them.

One midnight in July 2001 special branch police picked up Wasif Haider, 29, a Muslim sales manager of an American multinational firm from his residence in the north Indian city of Kanpur.

They tortured him in custody for three days before arresting him on charges of terrorism. Eleven cases, including rioting, waging war against the state and ferrying arms and explosives for terror attacks, were slapped against him. Haider was a Hizbul Mujahideen terrorist trained in Kashmir and had been involved in a bomb attack in Kanpur in 2000 - police claimed.

But all charges against the man fell apart in the court when a judge refused to accept the confessional video and written statements of Haider, observing that while in police custody, he might have faced coercion. In the key Kanpur bomb attack case, the court observed that "none of the witnesses were able to establish" that Haider had a hand in the attack. The court acquitted him in all cases, but not before he had languished 8 years in jail.

His arrest on terrorism charges and being in jail for 8 years, until 2009, has ruined his life forever, Haider said.

"Quoting police sources, the media reported that I had confessed to carrying out the Kanpur bomb attack and being a Hizbul terrorist. But no one knew that in police custody I was forced to sign more than 150 blank sheets and was forced to speak before a video camera," Haider told DW.

The courts acquitted Haider, and practically trashed all police evidence as fabricated, he said.

"Yet society still identifies me as a terrorist because of a false campaign by the police for long years. My old employer refused to re-employ me after I was acquitted. All of my several job applications to different companies in the past 4 years have met with mysterious silence and I am facing a bleak future," he said.

Haider's case is not unique. In the past months rights groups have highlighted dozens of such cases involving Muslim youths who had been framed in terror cases and detained in jails for years before finally being acquitted.

Fast-track courts

Several members of parliament recently demanded a discussion on the matter in parliament. The MPs pointed out that the sluggish court system was a key reason behind the long and unjustified detention of a number of young innocent people.

Amid a massive outcry over the issue, last month Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh assured parliament that the government would soon introduce special fast-track courts for such terrorism-related cases.

Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde last month said the home ministry was in support of faster trials.

"I am also of the view that arresting and keeping innocent persons in custody knowingly is indeed a serious offence and the government is committed to ensuring strong action against the officers responsible in all such cases," Shinde told Minority Affairs Minister K. Rahman Khan in a letter.

While Shinde's letter did not mention a time frame for the creation of such courts, Khan said that the government was indeed serious to see such terrorism cases settled as fast as possible.

"If any section of the security agencies are vindictively framing the Muslim youths in the terror cases, it has to be punished. Any misuse of power in the name of enforcement of security will not be tolerated," Rahman said.

Police accused of anti-Muslim bias

Social activist and former inspector general of police S. R. Darapuri says that the root of the problem is that a big section of the police force, which is dominated by Hindus, is communally biased against Muslims.

"After terror attacks, the communally-biased police routinely arrest Muslim youths, often without any preliminary investigation," Darapuri, general secretary of Rihai Manch, a civil society forum that seeks release of innocent Muslim youths detained in terrorism charges, told DW.

"Unfortunately, even courts are found to be biased against Muslims as is often reflected in the rejection of bail applications of people held on terror charges and slow trials."

However, rights activist Subhash Gatade said it was not the police alone that were responsible for the "indiscriminate arrests of Muslim youths and the creation of the idea that 'Muslims are terrorists.'"

"Tragically, the rot runs deep. A large part of the judiciary and media, what is known as civil society as well as polity, suffers from this bias," Gatade said.

Long incarceration devastates lives

Manisha Sethi, chairperson of Jamia Teachers Solidarity Association (JTSA) in New Delhi, said the costs of malicious prosecution and long incarceration, let alone the financial, social and psychological costs, were staggering and needed to be taken into account.

"Most families are ruined trying to raise money for legal fees for long, protracted trials. And in many cases, the accused were the sole breadwinners of the families. It leaves businesses destroyed and children uneducated," she told DW.

"And what is often not recognised are the deep psychological scars that result from the social stigma that comes with these charges - not only for the accused but also for their families."

Mohammad Aamir, who at the age of 18 was arrested and held for 14 years on charges of terrorism before being acquitted last year, welcomes the proposition for fast-track courts.

"A faster trial could have helped me save many years of my youth I lost in jail. I wouldn't wish it upon anyone to languish in prison for so many years," Aamir told DW.