127 Indian Muslims accused of “terror” acquitted after 19 years | Human rights news

New Delhi, India – On the night of December 26, 2001, Mohammad Abdul Hai boarded a train from Jodhpur, in the state of Rajasthan, in northwest India, to Surat, in neighboring Gujarat, to assist at a three-day seminar on Muslim education.

The seminar was organized by the All India Minority Education Board, of which Hai – then associate professor at Jai Narain Vyas University in Jodhpur – was a member.

The three-day event was to be attended by nearly 400 Muslim academics, activists and community leaders from across India.

Hai was excited about the seminar. But he had no idea that the event would change his life forever and soon he would not only be labeled “terrorist” and “anti-national”, but he would have to spend the next 14 months in prison.

The next day, at around 11 p.m., police arrived at Rajeshree Hall, a closed movie theater in Surat, where Hai and 120 other people attending the seminar were staying.

Police arrested them all under various articles of the Illegal Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), a strict anti-terrorism law, and accused them of being members of the banned and prohibited Islamic Student Movement (SIMI). for organizing the meeting to “Promote and develop” SIMI’s activities.

A total of 127 people, all Muslims, were arrested.

More than 19 years after their registration, a Surat court acquitted all of the defendants in the case on Sunday. Five of them died during the lengthy trial.

Indian authorities have accused SIMI of carrying out several bombings and of having links with armed groups based in Pakistan. Hundreds of its suspected members have been arrested, but the group says it is only spreading an “Islamic way of life” for Indian Muslims.

The Indian government banned SIMI in 2001 following the September 11 attacks in the United States.

An ordeal of almost 20 years

The Surat court, in its order of March 6, said the prosecution had failed to produce “convincing, reliable and satisfactory” evidence to establish that the accused belonged to SIMI or had met to promote the activities. of the group. The court ruled that they could not be found guilty under the UAPA.

“This case has caused so many problems for us and our families. Some of the victims lost their government jobs, others could not find work for years, ”Hai told Al Jazeera by telephone.

After spending 14 months in prison, Hai was released on bail by the Supreme Court of India in 2002. But that was not the end of his ordeal.

Every week for several years, Hai, now 66, traveled more than 700 km from his home in Jodhpur to report to Surat police. Twice a month, he made the same trip to appear before a judicial magistrate in the city of Gujarat.

Meanwhile, three months after being released on bail, he was reinstated at his university but was denied any promotion due to the case.

“I was working as an associate professor on December 27, 2001 and retired in the same position in June 2015. I couldn’t get a single promotion in all these years and I lost so many monetary benefits that I a government employee gets, including tips at the time of retirement, ”he said.

Asif Iqbal, 53, was working as a primary health worker for the Surat Municipal Company when he was arrested in the same case.

Not only did he spend four months in prison, but he was also suspended from his job and ultimately fired in 2018.

“I kept telling officials that the case was still pending in court and that I was not convicted, so let me keep my job but they didn’t listen to me and dismissed, ”he told Al Jazeera by phone from Surat.

Iqbal was due to retire in 2027.

“This case ruined my life. For a decade and a half I was not paid full salary, ”he said, adding that he“ felt guilty ”that his 75-year-old father still drove a rickshaw to help his family. to achieve the goals.

Now that the court has acquitted him of all charges, Iqbal demands that he be reinstated and compensated for the loss.

Asif Sheikh was unable to pursue a career in journalism due to his arrest in the case [Bilal Kuchay/Al Jazeera]

Asif Sheikh, now 51, was arrested while attending a course in mass communication and journalism at the University of Gujarat.

Despite being one of the top students at the university, Sheikh said he was unable to pursue a career in journalism, a profession he was passionate about.

“I was labeled a member of SIMI. Because of this label, no organization would give me a job, ”he told Al Jazeera. “Our homes were looted as if we were feared terrorists.”

Sheikh said he accepted a contract job at a government institute after he was released on bail, but was forced to resign after learning of his case.

“I wanted to be a journalist but now I sell spices.”

“ A significant bias against Muslims ”

Over the past decades, hundreds of Indian Muslims have been convicted in bogus terrorism-related cases, most resulting in the accused’s acquittal, but not before the victims have spent years in prison or in court – sometimes decades.

A 2018 study by Common Cause and Lokniti, a research initiative of the New Delhi-based Center for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), found that the feeling of being discriminated against by police in India is overwhelming. strongest among Muslims.

The study indicates that more than 47% of Indian Muslims fear being falsely accused of terrorist activity.

Another report by Lokniti in 2019, titled Police Status in India: Police Adequacy and Working Conditions, found that police in India exhibit “significant prejudice against Muslims,” ​​with half of the police staff saying that Muslims are “naturally inclined to commit crimes”.

In 2016, Innocence Network, an advocacy group campaigning for those wrongfully prosecuted, released its report, calling on the government to pay them compensation. The group also demanded that Indian officials responsible for wrongful arrests and prosecutions be held accountable.

“The point is, there is no compensation for those who have been detained for so long. The fact that there is no prosecution of the police who are planting, forging or fabricating evidence to keep these people on trial for so long indicates in itself that the justice system is not working, ”said Ravi Nair, Director executive of the South Asia Human Rights Documentation Center. Al Jazeera.

Nair said the immunity enjoyed by police and other government officials who engage in human rights abuses “must, first of all, be withdrawn or repealed.”

“Only then can you have a proper justice system that works in this country.”

But Asif Sheikh told Al Jazeera that he does not expect any compensation from the government. Instead, his appeal to Indian Muslims is “to work for the welfare of the community”.

Sheikh said the reason people in his community are reserved in “false and false” cases is to create fear among Muslims.

“If a group of people who want to talk about Muslim education or their constitutional rights find themselves in a bogus case that lasts 20 years, what does that mean? It creates fear, ”he said.

“Why is no one speaking on behalf of the Muslim community today? Because there is fear. This fear was created by such cases.

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