Kashmiri teen’s trauma exposes flawed Indian justice

Srinagar: Syed Maqbool Shah, an aspiring teacher from India-administered Kashmir aged 17, was visiting his brother in New Delhi in June 1996 when police wrongly accused him of taking part in a bombing.
The car blast the month before had ripped through the bustling Lajpat Nagar area of shops and homes, killing 13 people and putting local law enforcement agencies under intense pressure to find the culprits.
Police swooped in a pre-dawn raid on Shah’s brother’s rented residence where evidence tying the teenager to the blast was said to have been found – including a spare tyre from a stolen car linked to the bombings.
Shah was arrested, charged and sent to Tihar Jail, the notorious high-security New Delhi prison that he would share with militants, rapists and other criminals for nearly 10 of the 14 years he was imprisoned.
For the first three months, he wept everyday, but later took refuge in religion after meeting an elderly Kashmiri detainee.
“I used to pray five times a day,” he told AFP in his family’s home in main city of Srinagar. He also kept a prison diary documenting his life behind bars.
After his arrest, the case took four years to come to trial and another 10 to reach a verdict, which finally saw Shah acquitted of all charges.
Over the course of his imprisonment, the judge handling his case changed 26 times, and with each switch came new delays.
“I was never convicted but never released, not even on bail,” a thin and pale-looking Shah said.
“The last five years were the toughest. I was in solitary confinement and it adversely impacted my health,” he said.
He now takes medication for neurological problems and has chronic pain in his neck, back and legs.
— Miscarriage of Justice —
Shah’s lost years, which he describes as “pain and agony”, point to two major failings in India’s dysfunctional criminal justice system.
Administrative delays mean suspects charged with non-bailable offences must often wait years before the evidence collected by India’s notoriously corrupt police service can be challenged in court.
Campaigners also say prejudice against Muslims, particularly during investigations into terror attacks, leads police to unfairly target members of the religion, which is a minority faith in India.
Shah’s case is far from rare.
On November 16 last year, seven Muslim men were released on bail, five years after their arrest in connection with a bomb attack in Malegoan, Maharashtra.
Investigators now believe a right-wing Hindu group was behind the blasts that targeted Muslim worshippers and killed more than 30.
The seven men, who have maintained their innocence throughout, are expected to be cleared.
In another case highlighted in May, Imran Kirmani, an aeronautical engineer from Kashmir who dreamed of being a pilot, was released after four and half years in jail after being wrongly accused of plotting a terror strike in 2006.
Right groups and campaigners have long sought to highlight how false imprisonment occurs.
Human Rights Watch, the New York-based rights group, released a report called “The Anti-National” last year, accusing the police of fabricating confessions and arbitrarily detaining Muslims.
“By relying on forced and sometimes fabricated confessions, the Indian government risks punishing the wrong suspects while perpetrators remain free,” the report said.
“For genuine progress to be made, Indian police need to put an end to the ugly assumption… that virtually any Muslim is a threat to national security,” it concluded.
Leading Indian human rights activist Angana Chatterji also says that “on repeated occasions we have witnessed how Muslims have been targeted, discriminated against, and criminalised by the Indian police.”
Markandey Katju, a former judge from the Indian Supreme Court who retired last September, said police in eptitude lay at the core of the problem.
“The point is that they (the police) cannot catch the real culprits, so whomever they think may have committed the crime they catch hold of them,” he said in an October interview with cable news network NDTV.
“Some bomb blast takes place, they catch hold of the local Muslims and young people and implicate them,” he added.
Arun Bhagat, a one-time head of New Delhi police and former chief of India’s powerful Intelligence Bureau, denied that police were biased and stressed that terror investigations were complicated and difficult to undertake.
“Evidence is often very fleeting and many witnesses are unreliable, with some of them implicating their enemies to settle scores,” he told AGP.
“Therefore, there are instances of miscarriage of justice but this is part of the system and one cannot help it.
“But in general there is no such bias against Kashmiris.”

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