Waiting for their freedom

  • Ishtiyaq Joo
  • Publish Date: Mar 2 2017 9:15PM
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  • Updated Date: Mar 21 2017 8:43PM
Waiting for their freedom

                                                    Illustration by Suhail Naqshbandi/KI

In 1996, ten Kashmiris were arrested for allegedly bombing a Delhi market. More than twenty years and scores of ruined lives later, four remain in jail. Here’s a chronicle of their tragedy

 

Sher Ali Bhat died on 14 June. Of a broken heart, probably. For over 20 years, the septuagenarian had longed for his son Mehmood Ali to return home in Hassanabad, Srinagar. “Maeni Mahmoodo, wanei yita mo,” he murmured with his dying breath. “Do come now, my Mehmood.” Some of the relatives and neighbours who were witness to his passing say it was an echo of a lament they had heard before – 15 years ago, in the last words of Sher Ali’s wife Hajira.

Mehmood did not come, now as then. His jailors wouldn’t let him go.

Mehmood was arrested in 1996 from Kathmandu, Nepal, and charged, along with nine fellow Kashmiris, with bombing the Lajpat Nagar market in Delhi earlier that year. The Indian security agencies brought him to Delhi, locked him up, and practically threw away the key. They did not let him out for his mother’s funeral in 2010. They didn’t let him go bid goodbye to his father in 2016.

“Mehmood’s unending incarceration has destroyed our family. Our parents died carrying the grief of not being able to see him one last time,” laments Mehmood’s younger brother Ajaz.

Mehmood was 24 when he was arrested. Some of the others held along with him were even younger; Lateef Waza was 19 and Mirza Nissar Hussain barely 16. Mehmood and Lateef ran a business selling Kashmiri handicrafts in Kathmandu, and Nissar, soon after finishing high school, had visited them to learn the trade. After their arrest, Mehmood was presented by the security agencies as the “mastermind” of the blasts. The other seven, picked up from various places across India, were Mirza Iftikhar, Syed Maqbool Shah, Javeed Ahmed Khan, Abdul Gani Goni, Mohammed Naushad, Farooq Ahmed Khan and Fareeda Dar.

Despite proven innocent in court in Lajpat Nagar case, Mehmood Ali Bhat, Lateef Waza, Mirza Nissar, and Abdul Gani Goni are still jailed. The other four Mirza Iftikhar, Syed Maqbool Shah, Farooq Ahmed Khan and Fareeda Dar have been released after various periods of incarceration.  While as Javeed Ahmed Khan, and Mohammad Naushad who were found guilty in Lajpat Nagar blast case, are presently serving their sentence. The Court upheld lifer given to Javeed Khan, but commuted Naushad's death sentence to life imprisonment.

Mehmood was cleared of the charges by a Delhi court in 2012, as were Abdul Gani Goni, Lateef Waza and Mirza Nissar, but they were never freed. Instead, they were charged with carrying out the Jaipur serial blasts, also in 1996, and moved to a jail in Rajasthan. The prosecutors have since charge sheeted three different groups for carrying out the blasts – and even caught the real culprits. Still, the charges against the four Kashmiris were not dropped.

As a result, scores of lives have been damaged – of the jailed men themselves and their families.

“Mehmood was the one who took care of our family. He had taken bank loans to strength his business in Nepal. “With his arrest, the business was ruined and we had to sell our assets to repay the loans money,” says Ajaz.

Abdul Gani Goni’s family doesn’t fare much better. “My brother was arrested from Gujarat. He had gone there for Tablighi work. He was falsely arrested for carrying out an ‘unlawful activity’,” says Surraya Goni, his sister. She and her other brother, who is a contractor, have been fighting all these years to secure Abdul Gani’s release. So far, they have achieved nothing but disappointment. “I have four children, three daughters and a son. But for the last 20 years, my life has been revolving around my brother. My first daughter is married, but I do not know if I can do much for my other children. I used to spent most of my salary on trying to get my brother out of jail,” says Surraya, who retired as supervisor in the health department a few years ago.

The Gonis are desperate to get their brother out, now more than ever, so that their ailing mother could see him one last time. Janu Begum, 88, is currently admitted in Sub District Hospital in Bhaderwah, Doda. “My mother cries all the time. She wants to see her son before her death. She keeps asking for him and we keep lying he will be released this week, this month...,” says Surraya, who recently visited her brother in Jaipur Central Jail.

Her brother too, she says, is in “desperate need of treatment for multiple health problems”. “He gets hypertension since he keeps thinking that he didn’t get to see his father before his death and now he may not get to meet his mother either. He’s also suffering from some skin disease for which he’s not receiving any treatment.”

Lateef Waza’s father was overjoyed when, in 2001, a court in Gujarat cleared his son of charges, unrelated to the Delhi and Jaipur blasts, slapped on him by the police in that state. Lateef did leave Gujarat’s Sabarmati Jail soon after, but only to be put in Tihar Jail, Delhi. His father understood what it meant: Lateef wasn’t getting out anytime soon. It broke him, and he died not long afterwards. “After he returned from Tihar, he wasn’t the same. He told me ‘I don’t think they want to let them go free’, and a few days later he suffered a fatal heart attack,” says Noor Jahan, Lateef’s mother, crying.

His father’s death put the responsibility of providing for the family on the young shoulders of Tariq, Lateef’s brother, who had to drop out of college, and work. Tariq now works two jobs for over 15 hours a day so he can save enough for his sister’s marriage. “The responsibility of looking after our family is on me. And I have to get our sister married. But I’ll see to that,” Tariq says.

Not just financial, Lateef’s incarceration has also taken a huge social toll. “I pray to God that no one should suffer like we have. After my son was jailed, everyone kept a distance from us, even our near ones, thinking that if they kept in touch with us, they might get in some trouble,” says Noora, wiping away tears.

File Photos of: Abdul Gani               Mirza Nisar                           Mehmood Ali Bhat            Lateef Waza 

 

The 10 Kashmiris charged with carrying out the Lajpat Nagar blasts included two brothers – Mirza Nissar and Mirza Iftikhar. While the latter was acquitted by a Delhi court in 2010, and released after 14 years, Nissar remains in Jaipur Central Jail along with Abdul Gani Goni and Lateef Waza. “The Delhi police snatched away the best 14 years of my life. Our thriving business in Kashmiri handicrafts in Delhi and Nepal was ruined. Who is going to return these years to me,” says Iftikhar, remarking that Ajmal Kasab, one of the 10 terrorists who attacked Mumbai in November 2008 and the only one to be captured, had suffered a better fate than the accused in the Delhi blasts. 

“Kasab was arrested in 2008 and hanged in 2012. But our families continue to stand on the gallows since 1996. Nissar, my brother, was cleared in the Lajpat Nagar bombing case but then he was framed in the Jaipur blasts case. He was just a schoolboy then. And the way it is going, it seems there will be no end to the detention.”

He may no longer be in jail, but Iftikhar feels he is still “living a convict’s life”. “Despite clear court orders, they are reluctant to give me clearance to start some business venture of my own.”

He insists that it was the Delhi police that destroyed their lives. His claim is backed by the Delhi High Court which, in 2012, pulled up the police for its “grave prosecution lapses”. In their order, Justices S Ravindra Bhat and G P Mittal said, “The nature of grave prosecution lapses in regard to various issues such as lack of proof connecting some of the accused with the bomb incident, failure to hold Test Identification Parade of articles and the accused, and not recording the statements of vital witnesses…underline not only its lapses and inefficiencies but also throw up a question mark as to the nature and truthfulness of the evidence produced.”

The judges acquitted Nissar and Mehmood, and commuted the death penalty of Naushad to life in prison. The three had been awarded capital punishment by a sessions court on 8 April 2010.

They might as well have hanged them, says Iftikhar.