Prisoners of the system

Terror suspects find themselves jailed for long periods without trial, and when proven innocent, find that the country does not make any kind of reparation

February 20, 2017 07:53 am | Updated 07:53 am IST

On January 15, 1994, Mohammad Nisarudin was at home in Gulbarga, Karnataka, preparing for his Diploma in Pharmacy final exams, 15 days away. After he qualified, the 19-year-old planned to get a job in one of the Gulf countries, a dream he and his best friend Sajid (name changed) had talked about since they were seven. But that day, the police knocked at the door of his parents’ home and took him away in handcuffs. Initially, the police booked him for a bomb blast that had taken place in October 1993 in a Muslim educational institute in Hyderabad, then he was booked in a few unsolved bomb blasts that had taken place in August and September in 1993, then he was booked under the anti-terror law Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA) — which was repealed two years later, in 1996 — for planting the bombs that took two lives and injured 22 in five trains on December 5 and 6 1993 in Mumbai, and after a ‘confession,’ put into Ajmer Central Jail. On February 28, 2005 a TADA court at Ajmer convicted him and gave him a life sentence.

Mr. Nisarudin stayed there for 23 years labelled a terror-accused. “ Main yaad bhi nahin karna chahta unn dino ko; mujhe darkinar kar diya tha 73 days ke liye, chaar din tak khade rakha bediyon se baandh kar . (I don’t even want to recount those days, I was isolated for 73 days in the lock up, was made to stand and chained for four days]. On May 11 2016, the Supreme Court ruled that his confession, which was taken in police custody, was totally inadmissible, acquitted him of all charges and set aside his life sentence.

Left behind

When The Hindu spoke to Mr. Nisarudin at the home of his older brother Zahirudin, in Gulbarga, Karnataka, his voice quavered with emotion. “23 years of my life are gone to prove my innocence. Sab mujhse aage badh gaye, aur main sabse peeche reh gaya [Everyone has gone ahead in life and I am left far behind]. Most of my friends have gone abroad and those here don’t relate to me anymore. They could not even recognise me, how would they? There is a difference in the 19-year-old Nisarudin they last saw and today’s 42-year-old. An entire generation has gone by.” When this reporter asked him whether he had sought compensation of any kind from the State, his sorrow turned to anger: “How can I be compensated for all the years lost? Can I ever be compensated in any manner?”

Unable to carry on, he put his brother on the line. Mr. Zahirudin says that the family has used up all their savings in the long legal fight to bring Mr. Nisarudin home and were living day to day at the moment. “We do not have any resources to fight another legal battle.” Mr. Zahirudin says. “It takes a lot of money to do so and we lost all that we had to bring my brother home. Even if I seek action against those who falsely implicated him, half of them are dead. What is the way forward then?”

The focus now, Mr. Zahirudin says, is to help his brother put his life together again. “He is also entitled to be happy, just like you and me. I want to see him settle down. But people still don’t want to get their daughter or sister married in our family. Not only my brother, my entire family is a victim of the judiciary.” He says that though he tries to explain that his brother was falsely implicated and has been proved innocent, people fear that because he was accused of a terror crime, he will probably be picked up by the police for any blast that takes place in the country.

What rankles most is that though his brother has spent more than half his life in jail, the system has not expressed regret: “The least the judges could have done was expressed some sympathy or remorse.” In his opinion, the system has much to answer for; he says that when TADA was repealed his brother should have been released, but because presiding judges got transferred, public prosecutors were absent or repeatedly sought adjournments, it cost Nisaruddin 23 years in jail.

Victims of the system

While the length of Mr. Nisarudin’s incarceration is an extreme, his isn’t an isolated case.

Take Abdul Wahid Din Mohammad Shaikh, 39 now. He was charged of complicity in the Mumbai train blasts of November 7, 2006 and spent nine years in Arthur Road Jail in Mumbai before being acquitted of all charges — the only one of those accused to be acquitted — and released. Mr. Shaikh told The Hindu that all the accused were made to sign many documents, some of which were blank. “Had I known the consequences I would have never done so.” While in jail, he enrolled in a law course, and finished a course in journalism. If he knew something of the law at the time he was arrested, he said, “I would have known what a confession is, what the consequences of signing on any written or blank pages are, what is the rights of an accused are, what the rights of those arrested are, what the duties of an investigating officer and agency are.”

While he was in prison, his wife, who had never stepped out of the house, had to go out to work to make ends meet. Now that he is free and exonerated, his goal is to secure the release of the others who were, in his opinion, wrongful implicated and convicted in the same case. “Once those trapped in this case are out, I will strive to release those languishing in jail for being falsely implicated.”

And there is Adnan Mulla, 40, who was sentenced to 10 years for the Mulund blasts of March 1, 2003. Initially he was illegally detained in 2003 and not released because the police wanted to make him a witness. Then he was made an accused after he refused to give a statement against his brother-in-law of Saquib Nachan (former general secretary of the now-banned Students Islamic Movement of India, SIMI). “I spent six years and one month in jail,” he says. Throughout his incarceration, he was kept in the anda cell, an egg-shaped high security block. “I was going to get married the same month I was picked up,” he says. “My fiancée waited for seven years for me to be released. Only I know how much she and both our families suffered. How can the loss of time be compensated by any officer or government?”

A system in need of reform

In 1765, in Commentaries on the Laws of England, jurist Sir William Blackstone wrote, “It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.” While India borrowed much of the UK’s legal system, the spirit of the ‘Blackstone Formulation’ (as it has come to be known) does not seem to be followed. (See box.)

There are no figures for the number of people released for lack of evidence after long spells in prison. Even more disquieting is that India does not have any compensation for people who have lost years of their lives to the justice system.

“Under normal circumstances we want to book the real culprit and have no motive to trap someone in a case,” says Prakash Singh, a retired Director General of Police. “We want to do a fair investigation, but the instruments of investigation are blunted and rusted as the police apparatus is in bad shape. It is possible that police officers are susceptible to bias and pressures from all areas and if politicians decide, don’t catch people from my community but from the other one, then there is selective prosecution.”

“When there is a terror case, you should have an open mind and take into consideration all aspects,” Mr. Singh says. “It is unfortunate that 90% of the time members of a certain community are involved. When one is investigating, I am not denying there may be some prejudice as there are pressures. Sometimes there are mistakes, and sometimes just because someone has a bad character and is in the bad books, an officer succumbs to the temptation [of implicating him]. These things do happen in real practice; I am not denying it.”

Although the Supreme Court has granted compensation in some cases in the past, it has not laid down any guidelines on how compensation can be calculated. One possible difficulty: terror cases are very different from, say, a motor vehicles case, which can have a formula.

Advocate Indira Jaisingh, former Additional Solicitor-General of India says, “The first step for the State would be to just acknowledge the wrong-doing. Then reparation. This will also act as a deterrent, as the officers need to be more careful in future. The demand for compensation certainly raises an issue that the Indian legal system has to learn to deal with, whether by legislation or in courts.”

Right to compensation

“The right to compensation is a human right,” says advocate and human rights activist Vrinda Grover, “and it is the responsibility of the State in falsely implicated cases because people are picked up for their religious affiliation or denomination and the police, who is an agent of the State, know that the person has nothing to do with the case but wrongly implicated the person.”

Courts have the power to compensate, says P.D. Kode, a retired judge of the Bombay High Court, “It depends upon the judge; once the trial is over and he has ascertained the evidence and if a person is prosecuted maliciously, the victim can file a suit for damages.” He says that high courts have awarded exemplary compensation in many cases, for example in ‘encounter’ cases. “They have to show that witnesses were liars. If such things come on record, the court has the power to order compensation. If courts come to a conclusion that the accused was framed, courts have wide powers to do justice to the accused.”

The Innocence Network (IN) is an affiliation of organisations that provides free legal and investigative services to individuals seeking to prove their innocence of crimes, and supporting them after they are freed. It is also working to eliminate the causes of wrongful convictions. IN suggests that the government should grant compensation to the those exonerated, for the loss and harm caused to them and for violating their rights under Article 21 (Right to Life) of the Constitution of India. It says compensation should be calculated on case-to-case basis, factoring in the length of incarceration, loss of income, loss of opportunities (of education, possibilities of livelihood, skills), and the amount spent on legal fees, as well as more intangible harm like the loss of family life, stigmatisation, psychological and emotional harm caused to the accused and their families. They also recommend that the amount may be recovered from the officers responsible for the wrongful arrests and prosecution.

Ms. Grover agrees that compensation must be directly taken from officers responsible — so a clear signal is sent that these acts won’t be condoned — but says that an arithmetic calculation could not be done. “But there needs to be a very high compensation, something to the tune of ₹10 lakh is a small minimum.”

Justice A P Shah, former Chairman of the Law Commission and a member of the jury of the Innocence Network, says, “Terror cases are very different. With the stigma of being associated with terror cases, families are huge sufferers. Ideally we should have legislation but even in the absence of that courts have awarded compensation in several cases. The courts have even booked erring officers if evidence is fabricated, officers are booked for perjury, contempt of court and other offences under the Indian Penal Code.” He says that since the Prevention of Torture Bill, 2010, has not been introduced in Parliament — it was sent back by the Select Committee four years ago — the only way to fight is in the court of law.

Abandoned by all

“Ours is a befitting case for compensation,” says Mr. Zahirudin. “But there need to be categories for those acquitted: benefit of doubt, insufficient evidence, falsely implicated. The third category needs to be chalked out differently. The courts need to look into reasons of why this happens and how and why someone is implicated. Why is only a certain section of the society targeted? Pick up any blasts case whether it is Ajmer or Malegaon…”

Mr. Nisarudin interrupts, not quite calm, but less emotional now: “I want to start a business of my own. I always wanted to open a hardware shop with my brother, but we have no money to do so. Will people come forward and help me financially in any manner? If they do it will go a long way in rehabilitating me. I have very little hope from the government.”

The story has a small silver lining. The Hindu first spoke to the brothers in December 2016. A few weeks later, the family found a bride for Mr. Nisarudin, “after great difficulty,” his brother says. He was married on February 10.

How the world makes reparation

Article 14 (6) of International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights: When a person has by a final decision been convicted of a criminal offence and when subsequently his conviction has been reversed or he has been pardoned on the ground that a new or newly discovered fact shows conclusively that there has been a miscarriage of justice, the person who has suffered punishment as a result of such conviction shall be compensated according to law, unless it is proved that the non-disclosure of the unknown fact in time is wholly or partly attributable to him.

United Kingdom: The Home Secretary, under specified conditions and upon receipt of applications, is obligated to pay compensation for wrongful conviction or incarceration.

France: Code de Procedure Penale follows International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Germany: An Act of Parliament (the Law on Compensation for Criminal Prosecution Proceedings 1971) specifies that whoever has suffered damage as a result of a criminal conviction which is later quashed or lessened the applicant shall be compensated by the State.

Australia: In 2004, the Australian Capital Territory incorporated a slightly reworded version of Article 14 (6) within ACT legislation. As per the Human Rights Act 2004, an individual who is wrongfully convicted of a criminal offence may seek compensation.

New Zealand: A guided discretionary system of compensation under the Compensation and Ex Gratia Payments for Persons Wrongly Convicted and Imprisoned in Criminal Cases.

Born to the wrong community

According to the National Crime Records Bureau’s 2015 statistics, out of 185,182 prisoners in Central Jails, 94,675 (51.1%) are ‘undertrials’ (the term for people who are suspected of a crime, arrested, incarcerated but not yet tried in court) and in district jails, out of 180,893 prisoners, 143,495 (79.3%) are undertrials.

NCRB numbers say that over 55% of undertrials across the country are either Muslims, Dalits or tribals. Scheduled Castes are 16.6% of India’s population, and Scheduled Tribes are 8.6%. Muslims are roughly 18% of India’s population, but make up 15.8% of the country’s convicts and 20.9% of its undertrials.

The creaking legal system means that long periods can pass before a case comes to trial: in 2013, 62% of total inmates were undertrials who had been in jail for more than three months; on 2014, that figure was 65%.

A study by the Quill Foundation’s Centre for Research and Advocacy on terror prosecution in Maharashtra since 1993 found that an overwhelming number of the more than 460 accused of terrorism in Maharashtra have been declared innocent after spending an average of three to six years in prison. More than half of the accused in the state were doctors, engineers, and educated professionals at the beginning of their careers. Almost all of who had been released after being found innocent had, after their release, been forced to pick up traditional occupations or small scale businesses, or remain unemployed. The study found that both the judicial process and the conviction rate in terror-related cases has been very low: only 42 of 93 cases filed since 2001 against SIMI (with more than 200 accused), have been heard and concluded. Of these 42, only three saw convictions (with sentences of two years each) and 39 have resulted in acquittals.

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