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“What is their crime, that they were born Muslim”? asks Shaikh, acquitted after 9 years in jail

SEEMA MUSTAFA

NEW DELHI: He is Wahid Din Mohammad Shaikh, a 39-year-old man who was picked up for a bomb blast he knew nothing of ten years ago. Acquitted by the trial court in Mumbai, Shaikh is trying to pick up the pieces of a life destroyed by third-degree torture and jail. Like others acquitted after years in jail interviewed by this writer in the past many years, Shaikh recounts what is—to put it mildly—a horror story that makes the blood curdle, with a deadpan face and a tone of voice as if he is speaking about the weather.

His has been a story, shared by hundreds of Muslims in Maharashtra (and other states of course). Under the hyper Congress government in the state, and the centre, Shaikh had his first brush with the law when he was teaching in a local Urdu institution, in 2002 when he was detained for questioning under the charge of being a member of SIMI. He denied it vehemently, but no one listening and he was jailed briefly for two months He told The Citizen that he was framed by a rival group from within his community at the time.

However, this brought him under the security scanner and he spent the next few years at the beck and call of the local police station that summoned him regularly for questioning on any issue whatsoever. In July 2006 there was a bomb blast in a local train. Shaikh, as expected, was called in by the Crime Branch and questioned and left. Other agencies too questioned him at the time.

On September 29, 2006, he was at home with his wife (he married in 2003) and two children, a daughter of six months, and son of two years. The police called him and insisted he come to the police station immediately as they wanted to show him some photographs. He took an autorickshaw for the police station but by then a police vehicle with one havildar drove up and took him to the police station. From then started a journey that Shaikh could not have imagined in his worst nightmares.

He was first questioned for hours, and as he says, “the police really try and hypnotise you.” He was told that he had entertained Pakistanis, that bombs had been made in his house, that he was an agent of SIMI, of Lashkar, of ISI and then a confession statement was brought to him to sign. He refused, saying “you can kill me but I will not sign” as he says he knew that this could be his death knell.

One month of torture followed. They started with the first degree which is an abuse of the worst kind about any and everything, along with slaps, beatings, no food, confinement in the dark, handcuffed in a standing position and left there for hours.

This moved into the second degree that had the cops stripping him named, administering electric shocks to his private parts, spreading and stretching his legs into 180 degrees position that then causes bleeding in the urine, pushing chemicals into the anus, beating the soles of the feet and the hands with a plank causing excruciating pain.

The third degree then was using the force of water on the face and eyes, of blindfolding tightly, spinning him around and throwing him into a dark room where apart from balance and fear, there was physical damage to the eyes as well. His vision is impaired now, as was of other prisoners. He said that the cops always took care that there were no physical markings left on the bodies so that the torture was not evident in the court appearances. All injury was internal.

After 30 days he was sent along with the others arrested for the same case to Arthur Road jail where the prison staff beat them with lathis the moment they entered. It was a difficult stay, with a narco test in Bangalore as well under officers who were highly abusive and threatening. In Arthur Road jail a beating fractured their limbs, they were packed off for a while to other jails and were given treatment for the broken bones only after two weeks of agony.

A major setback leading to deep depression came when lawyer Shahid Azmi was killed in Mumbai. Azmi was a well-known rights lawyer and was being targeted. As Shaikh said the prisoners were completely disheartened as he was the ray of hope in their lives, giving them sustenance, insisting they would be freed.

To cut a long horrific story short, Shaikh started writing a book in jail in 2014. A year later they went for what they all expected to be the last court hearing that would give them freedom. Like bridegrooms we dressed up in whatever we had, went into the courtroom with great optimism, making V signs at the media. He said nothing prepared him for what followed as instead of acquittal the sentences started being delivered, Guilty for all 11 with Accused Number 8 (Shaikh) being the only one with a “Not Guilty.” He started weeping as he could not accept what had happened, and even today is only interested in talking about those serving life sentences and served death sentences in jail.

Two of the 11 were also named in the famous Malegaon case. Both with the other accused were acquitted, but have been given a death sentence (Aasif Bashir Khan) and life sentence (Mohammad Ali Sheikh) for this case.

Shaikh says he was saved by three counts. One, that he did not sign the confessional statement that the others were left with no choice by the torture to sign. Two, a key witness (a relative from his wife’s side) had given a statement under pressure that Shaikh was entertaining Pakistanis at his house, but retracted in the court by saying he was forced to sign a complete lie. And three, and here he thanks his lawyers who advised his wife to send a telegram to the Anti-Terror Squad office on the night of his arrest stating that the keys to their house were with the police and not with her. She had shifted with her two children to her parent’s house. This the lawyers said was essential so that the ATS could not plant any material in his house. At 1 pm his wife went to the post office to send out the telegram.

This, Shaikh said, saved him as the others in jail with life and death sentences were unable to do so. Literature of all kinds was thus recovered from their homes. Besides the witnesses coerced into signing statements against them remained too scared to do so even later. Luck and fortune determined by circumstances clearly make the difference between life and death in our system. Shaikh is acquitted, others who have appealed against the trial court ruling to the High Court are still waiting for a verdict. Two years have already gone by, a lifetime in jail.

“What can we do, what is their crime? Just that they are born Muslim?” asks Shaikh. The only time when the pain peeps through his otherwise expressionless eyes is when he talks about all the others who he insists are “even more innocent than I” who are serving out their sentences now with little hope. One of them is his brother-in-law.