Kolkata: He doesn’t look like a 39-year-old man. The constant trial, police torture during interrogation and mental agony that he has gone through has definitely taken a toll on his youth. He was only 26 years of age when he was picked up by Anti-Terrorist Squad, Mumbai from his house as one of the suspects for the Mumbai train blast, on July 11, 2006. He is the only accused to be acquitted by the court, nine years later after the police failed to prove him guilty of the charges levelled on him. That’s Abdul Wahid Sheikh, the man who lost his prime in the Arthur Jail of Mumbai, being tortured for a crime that he never committed. Wahid was in Kolkata to release his book Begunah Qaidi (Innocent Prisoner) at the Muslim Institute, Kolkata when eNewsroom caught up with him:
Tell us something about your book?
Today, to be honest, I just don’t want to talk about my book. For, I am not here to promote my book or boost its sale. I have an agenda, which is to create a mass awareness on how to deal with this type of situation, where an innocent gets framed by the state executives for a crime that he never committed. Till I was arrested for the Mumbai bomb blast, I too, believed that there is no smoke without fire. I too used to think that those arrested are wrongdoers and we need to stay away from the troublemakers. But, alas, I was wrong. Having witnessed it first hand, I wrote this book with the sole intention of making people aware of what being framed in a false case is like and what the family and friends of the accused should do and how a community can play a big role in cases of false allegations or arrests.
Is it true that you began writing this book when you were in jail?
Yes. The idea to write this book took birth in the jail, where I met the remaining 12 accused in the same case, for the first time in my life. Our interaction made me realize that we all had been framed by the state machinery for a crime that I believe none of the accused had committed. With every passing day, it was becoming clear, that we were the 13 selected faces, by the investigative agencies to fit in the story that they weave. Hence, I felt that there was an urgent need to unmask the ugly side of the investigative forces of India. I began to write this book in 2006, but my jailor, Swati Rathe, made sure that the pages were burnt or torn. She tried her best to ensure that I stop penning down this experience of mine, as it would expose the ugly side of the investigating agency. But that only made me determined. Finally, after being acquitted I penned down the remaining chapters and had the book published last year.
How is it that you were the only accused, who didn’t sign the confession statement?
Let me be clear, I was not the favourite or son-in-law of the investigating officer. But, I was strong enough to not give in to the mental and physical torture that we are being exposed to. Most gave in when the police began to threaten them with the prospect of torturing their family. I had not signed the confession letter, which I later came to know, is the only piece of evidence needed to convict an accused in cases related to terror attacks. Also, the investigating agency realized that the role given to me was not a really important one and hence didn’t need a written confession for the same. However, the fact that they had made other accused include my name in the confession letter made them feel that it was enough to have jailed. Luckily for me, the prime witness backtracked and he kept all the evidence intact right from the speech given to him to state as the witness to the calls made by the police to pressurize him into do as per their demand.
In your book, you have accused the entire system right from the police to the judiciary to the medical officers of being hands in gloves?
They are. The investigation carried out by most of the investigative agency is nothing but a sham. After any attack, the media trials begin, creating a public opinion, which builds immense political pressure, which in turns translates into pressurizing the police to get hold of the culprits. In 99 percent of the cases, I believe that accused is framed just like I was. Right from the arrest to the conviction, the police follow the age-old four-step process, which is – circulating the police theory (how they arrested, what the accused were planning to do etc), setting up false witnesses, using draconian laws like MCOCA, TADA and UPA to get confessions unconstitutionally and lastly, resorting to false recovery of RDX or weapons, here the forensic department, which is fully controlled by the government just plays along the lines set up by the police. Make me the ACP for a few days, with these four steps, I can even arrest Modi and have a death penalty awarded to him. Such is the state of law in our country.
Apart from writing this book, what else keeps you busy these days?
I was a teacher before being arrested and I continue being one till date. However, I didn’t waste the nine years behind the bars. I completed my post graduation in English, then did a course in journalism and then even completed my first year of studying law at Mumbai University, while being convicted. At present, I am about complete my degree course in law to become a qualified lawyer.
After my release, activism also takes up a huge chunk of my time. I have set up an NGO, called the Innocence Network, where we work with other activists and lawyers to fight for the youths who are falsely implicated in such cased. Also, I have taken on the responsibility of getting Kolkata’s Majid released. He has been falsely implicated in this case. We all should come together and create a mass movement to help Majid get justice.
Do you plan to fight legal battles for such people?
I would like to, but I think we all know what happened to Shahid Azmi. There may be similarities between his and my story, but to be honest, I have suffered a lot and I don’t want to end up like him. But then you never know what lies in store… life is uncertain.