Freed after 23 years in jail, when Ali Mohammad Bhat, 48, reached Srinagar on Tuesday, he headed straight to the graves of his parents in a nearby burial ground. Once at his father’s grave, he dropped to the ground and held the mound of soil in a tight embrace, crying inconsolably as he did so. He also put his ear to the ground as if trying to hear some response from inside the grave.
The video of the scene later went viral, sending a wave of sadness across the Valley. Bhat is among the four other persons – Latif Ahmed Baja (42), Mirza Nisar (39), Abdul Goni (57) and Rayees Beg (56) – who were released on Monday after a court acquitted them of terror charges.
They were accused of being involved in Samleti and Lajpat Nagar bomb blasts which between them killed 27 people. However, the court concluded that the prosecution had failed to provide evidence of conspiracy adding that no evidence was provided to establish any link between them and the main accused, Dr Abdul Hameed, whose death sentence was upheld.
They had been picked up in 1996 soon after the blasts. The chargesheet had said the men were associated with the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front.
Bhat ran a flourishing carpet and paper machie business from Nepal before his arrest. But one afternoon in May, some persons raided his place and bundled him in a vehicle. They turned out to be police men from a special cell of the Delhi police.
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Waja and Nisar, then teenagers, were arrested along with him. They also sold carpets in Kathmandu. Three were taken to New Delhi, slapped with terror charges and ever since had been in jail.
“My father Shair Ali Khan would move from pillar to post to get me freed. He would tell everyone that I was innocent,” Bhat says. “He would carry documents to lawyers and journalists to convince them of my innocence”.
He continues: “Father died longing for my return. But I couldn’t even attend his funeral”.
Waja who lives a few kilometres away from Bhat also lost his father in these years. A well-known cricket player in his locality in his youth, Waja is yet to make sense of his new-found freedom. He finds it difficult to recognise his relatives and friends who have grown old. He also can’t relate to the nephews and nieces who were born when he was in jail. What’s more, he couldn’t recognize the lane leading to his house, as the locality has become much more congested than it was in his youth.
Among the five persons released, four are Kashmiris and one, Rayees Beg, is from Agra in Uttar Pradesh.
Earlier also, many Kashmiris charged with involvement in terror attacks have been acquitted by the courts after spending years in jail, as have been people, largely Muslims across the country. They have been slapped with false charges of their involvement in terrorism and then left to rot in prison for years and run the gauntlet of the endless trials before their eventual acquittal by the courts.
In the process, they end up losing the best part of their lives to the extended incarceration for the crimes they didn’t commit. Even though they are subsequently duly acquitted by the courts, none have been compensated for the lost period of their lives. What is more, the security personnel who falsely implicated them go scot-free.
In 2017, two youth from Kashmir, Mohammad Rafiq Shah, 38, and Mohammad Hussain Fazli, 43, walked free after serving twelve years each in prison for their alleged involvement in 2005 pre-Diwali blasts in Delhi which claimed 67 lives. Delhi High Court acquitted them of all the charges and ruled that the evidence against them was “fabricated and flimsy”. And before them, Engineer Farooq Khan from Anantnag in South Kashmir spent 19 years in prison, 14 of which in Tihar alone. There are many others.
So far, however, there has been little media spotlight on the tragedy of these individuals. A case after case of wrongful arrest has done little to sensitize the government towards introducing necessary checks and balances in the law and order machinery to discourage the incidence of picking up wrong people for terror incidents. Nor has it promoted some sense of responsibility towards the victims who are left to fend for themselves following their acquittal. Wronged by the system, the state owes these men recompense and rehabilitation. Least that the state can do is to provide them jobs. With best periods of their lives gone, these youth are hardly in a position to earn their livelihoods.
The release after long years of incarceration hardly helps rebuild the shattered lives. On the contrary, the acquitted individuals and their families continue to face the social stigma of being dubbed as terrorists.
In 2016, there was an initiative to create awareness and highlight the plight of the victims of wrongful arrests. It was called The Innocence Network (IN), India, an all India collective of individuals and organizations. The group modelled after the Black Lives Matter, a movement by the African-American community against violence and systemic racism – decided to work for the rights of those who have been wrongfully prosecuted under terrorism charges.