A court judgment delivered earlier this year holds important lessons for those engaged in investigating and fighting terrorism.

Questioning the methods of terror investigation is always a challenge because it is so easily seen as defending the enemies of the nation. The exercise is monumentally difficult after a benumbing bomb attack — especially if it has been judged to be the work of a home-grown Islamist organisation.

The raging anger at this time is in fact against too little, too careful policing, with voices clamouring for instant punishment to the perpetrators. And should the police, under pressure, go off beam and name a few incorrect names and round up a few misidentified suspects, the wrong is seen, not as a wrong, but, in a perverted sort of way, as a balancing act, a compensation for the injustice done to the terror victims. Even from a liberal point this can appear as unavoidable collateral damage suffered in the larger battle against terrorism.

But anguished demands for action and lashing out at imagined culprits can be horribly, embarrassingly off the mark, as the Anders Breivik shootings so chillingly demonstrated. The automatic assumption after the Oslo killings was that Islamists were behind it. Yet Breivik turned out to be insanely anti-Muslim. Imagine the decibel levels of anti-Muslim voices had Breivik not been found out as soon as he was. Within hours of the Oslo outrage, the Wall Street Journal ran a biting editorial (since revised) blaming it on Islamist terrorists: The jihadists, the leader said, had extracted a “terrible price” because of Norway's commitment to “freedom of speech and conscience” and “every other freedom that still defines the West.” The WSJ leader went beyond the terror attack and became an ideological tirade against a faith seen to be in a classic clash against liberal Western values.

Back in India, there was the usual rush of slanted commentaries after the July 13, 2011 serial bombings in Mumbai. Even if the outrage was masterminded by the Indian Mujahideen (IM) or some other Islamist organisation — as indicated by the Union Home Minister — there was little justification for the offensive anti-Muslim tone in the post-blasts public conversation. A celebrity columnist blamed vote bank compulsions for the government's failure to crush domestic terrorism. The sub-text: The investigating agencies needed to be ruthless in picking up Muslim suspects. On social networking sites, the language was coarser with not a few demanding saturation combing of Muslim neighbourhoods. Reporters freely identified alleged IM terrorists even as one hate-spewing newspaper article demanded disenfranchisement of Muslims for their alleged role in commissioning terror acts.

The Oslo shootings reinforced a point that was self-evident and yet seemed to require re-stating every time a bomb blast shattered the peace anywhere in India. Terror wears the mask of religion and this religion can be Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism or something else. From Nathuram Godse in 1948 to Breivik today, we have seen terrorists claiming affinity to a host of faiths and ideologies. Nonetheless, Muslims alone have been made to feel that they have somehow to answer for the perverted acts of their alleged co-religionists. When Muslim boys are picked up and shown off as terrorists, there is rarely any interrogation of the police accounts despite their dreary sameness.

Over the past many years, we have become habituated to seeing young Muslim men, their faces covered, being paraded at press conferences. Each of these has been a trophy moment for the police and a spectacular newsbreak for the press. What happens when the same men are later released because the prosecution could not produce an iota of evidence?

Indeed, the spate of acquittals in many of the terror cases ought to induce some rethinking on policing methods and the rationality of picking up suspects just to be able to show quick, dramatic results. Whether it is Godhra 2002, the Delhi blasts of 2005 and 2008, the Mumbai train attacks of 2006, Mecca Masjid cases of 2007 or men and boys routinely picked up and charged with terrorism, the evidence presented in the courts has proved over and over to be wafer thin.

Maulana Umarji was not only the key conspirator in the Godhra train burning, but, according to then media reportage, he actively incited the mob. In February 2011, he was acquitted along with 63 others. As Jyoti Punwani noted in The Hindu, the Maulana had in fact played the opposite role, expressing “regret on behalf of his community, publicly and repeatedly.”

Dozens of boys arbitrarily picked up by the Andhra Pradesh police and chargesheeted in the Mecca Masjid blasts have since been honourably acquitted and are currently fighting to be compensated for the slur cast on them. Mohammad Salman, an alleged IM operative, whom the police recently linked to the July 13, 2011 Mumbai bombings, citing his interrogation report in the 2008 Delhi blasts case, turned out to have been discharged in that case. When the case came up in court, the seizure memos of the Uttar Pradesh police and the Delhi police did not match; the police showed his age as 27 when his parents were married in 1990 and his school certificate showed his birth year as 1992.

The Hindu came across several cases of blatant falsification of evidence against alleged terrorists. The Lucknow police's case against Kolkata resident Aziz-ur-Rahman was that on June 22, 2007, he and four others arrived in Lucknow armed with huge amounts of RDX and other explosives. On June 23 — after the Lucknow police arrested two of them — Rahman dumped the explosives in a hollow behind the city's Sanjay Gandhi Post Graduate Institute of Medical Sciences and returned to Kolkata. When defence counsel Mohammad Shoaib took up the case, he came across a glaring discrepancy. On June 23, 2007, Rahman was in the custody of the Jadavpur police facing a theft charge — a fact established by his production the same day before Additional Chief Judicial Magistrate (Alipore) J. Koley. But because Rahman was also charged under Section 399 (dacoity) in another case, Mr. Koley, in his order dated June 22, 2007, granted his custody to the West Bengal CID.

The most devastating blow to the prosecution case was dealt on February 2 this year by Delhi (Dwarka courts) Additional Sessions Judge Virender Bhat. Mr. Bhat's judgment, delivered with rapier sharp wit and sarcasm, is a testament on the functioning of the Delhi's police's anti-terrorism wing, and ought to be compulsory reading for all those training to be investigators. If nothing else, they would learn the art of credible fabrication.

The prosecution case: At around midnight on June 27, 2005, an elite team led by anti-terrorism officer Ravinder Tyagi (the CBI asked for his punishment in another fabricated case), staged an encounter on the Gurgaon-Delhi Road which resulted in the capture of four alleged ISI agents and Kashmiri terrorists, Saqib Rahman alias Masood, Nazir Ahmad Sofi, Gulam Moinuddin Dar and Bashir Ahmed Shah. Mr.Tyagi had secret information that preparatory to a massive bomb attack in the Capital, the terrorists, carrying huge amounts of arms and ammunition, would be reaching Delhi from Gurgaon in a Tata Indica car. The raiding party, travelling in two vehicles, a Swaraj Mazda and a Maruti Gypsy, “gave chase to the Tata Indica” and blocked it from both ends. Terrorist Masood came out of the car and fired two rounds on the police party. Mr. Tyagi and his men “overpowered the terrorists,” including terrorist Dar who was about to lob a hand grenade.

In his judgment, Mr. Bhat tore the police version to shreds. The judge found it “shocking and unbelievable” that Mr. Tyagi took his own time to act on the “secret information” and did not pass it on to his superiors. “What if the terrorists had struck?” he asked, concluding that either “there was no information” or Mr. Tyagi had “ulterior” motives. About the policemen being able to easily disarm the terrorists, he said: “Such kind of imaginary bravery is seen only in Bollywood… Why would terrorists armed with AK 56 and hand grenades surrender to the police?… The encounter should have been fierce. Nothing like this happened which shows it (encounter) is totally imaginary and conceived by the police to implicate the accused in a false case.”

The Judge pointed out a host of other errors and contradictions — the site plan was falsified, the recoveries were planted, the terrorist vehicle, claimed by the police to have been stolen in May 2003, was registered only in July 2003. The prosecution case finally collapsed after the defence obtained the log book of the two police vehicles through Right to Information applications. The log book entries showed that neither the Swaraj Mazda nor the Gypsy went to the encounter spot on the night of June 27, 2005.

In conclusion the judge, who recommended punishment to Mr. Tyagi and his team, said: “It is difficult to take it (the stage-managed encounter) out of mind. These four police officers have brought utter shame and disrepute to the whole Delhi Police Force. In my opinion, there cannot be any more serious or grave crime than a police officer framing an innocent citizen in a false criminal case ... It is not only unethical but also illegal for an investigating agency to resort to concoction, padding, fabrication of evidence — all serious offences under the law even to bring a known criminal to justice.”

Wise words that must be paid heed to by every policeman and every citizen who feel that the means are unimportant when the fight is against terrorism.

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