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Interview: Of Torture, Impunity and the False Charges on Abdul Wahid Shaikh

In conversation with Abdul Wahid Shaikh who was incarcerated for nine years on false charges for the July 11, 2006 Mumbai train blasts. He has recently been acquitted.

Abdul Wahid Shaikh in conversation with Ajoy Ashirwad Mahaprashasta from The Wire.

Abdul Wahid Shaikh was one the 13 accused in the July 11, 2006, Mumbai train bomb blast. He was released in 2015 by a Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act court as the police couldn’t find any proof for the charges against him. Wahid has written a book titled Begunah Qaidi (Innocent Prisoner) documenting his experiences of nine years in prison. The Wire talked to Wahid about what he went through during his years in prison, how he fought the case, the impact it had on him and more.

Excerpts:

My first question to you is how did you think of coming up with this book and what was your motivation behind it?

The Mumbai Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS) arrested me with 12 other accused. The case was totally false and we were arrested in spite of being innocent. We were tortured and beaten up and then we were made to sign confessions forcibly. False witnesses were made up against us. A trial was set up against us in order to punish us. That very moment, I realised that we have been made part of a very huge conspiracy. It was very important to unmask the police who planned such a thing against us. Hence, I made up my mind in 2006 itself that I have to write a book on this issue. I started writing the book in 2006 only but the jail superintendent of Arthur Road jail, Swati Sathe constantly stopped me from writing this book by tearing the pages of my book and at times burned them too. They tried that the book doesn’t come out in public.

You are a school teacher, you used to be one back then too and even now you teach. You teach science, you have done your BEd . So how were you pulled into this police network? 

Yes, I have written about it. I was leading a very normal life, I used to teach in a school, I have a family. In 2001, when the Indian government banned the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), they started putting a lot of Muslim youngsters in jail on charges that they are members and activists of SIMI. By mistake, like the police did in 2006, in 2001 too they arrested me on false charges, that is, by accusing me of being a SIMI activist. After that case was falsely framed against me, the police used to summon me whenever there used to be any bomb blasts or riots in the country. So this whole process of harassment and torture was going on from 2001. In 2006, after the train blasts, when the police were unable to find the real suspects, it was easier for them to frame me and people like me in the case. Just on the basis of the SIMI case, the police arrested me.

The charge on you was that you gave shelter to the six Pakistani men who planted the bomb in your home. Tell us how the Maharashtra ATS managed to frame up this charge against you, as you allege.

When the Maharashtra ATS couldn’t find the original people, they made up the entire story. They plotted the story themselves. They showed how Pakistan, SIMI, Laskhar-e-Tayyaba and ISI got together and planned the bomb blasts. Part of the story was that people from Pakistan came and met the 13 accused, how and where they met. Some Pakistanis crossed the border and stayed in Mumbra, Mira Road and Bombay. In Bombay, they made bombs inside a room of a flat and after placing these bombs these Pakistanis stayed at Wahid’s place, rested there and there after crossed the border for Bangladesh and Pakistan. So in this story written by the police my role was that I gave some Pakistanis shelter in my home.

You have mentioned this in your book too. You were arrested in September and the blasts happened in July. During that period of two months, the police harassed and tortured you a lot and used to summon you regularly. Tell us something about that period.

After the bomb blasts of July 11, the police used to call me to inquire about the blasts. They used to record my statements. Being a responsible citizen of the country I fully co-operated with the police and kept on going to all the agencies, Crime Branch, Mumbai ATS and every other agency that called me. But there, they mistreated me and tortured me. They stripped me, used third degree torture against me. Many times, I was detained illegally.

So, you were aware of the fact that all of this was happening in context to the bomb blast?

They used to ask me, and everyone was also aware of the bomb blasts. So they used to ask me what I knew about the blasts. I used to tell them that I didn’t know anything about the blasts. But they used to say that I must be aware of the people who were responsible for the blasts. I used to say how would I know anything about it, when the Mumbai police department doesn’t about it, how am I supposed to know.

So then they used to ask about how I spent the day of July 11 and where was I on that day. I used to tell them everything and they used to pen it down and further cross check it. They called all the people I met and ask them whether I was with them on the evening of July 11. After confirming with everyone, they understood that I did not have a role to play in the blasts, but even after that, when they couldn’t find the real people, they framed me.

Did you file any complaint anywhere that the police were torturing you?

I made a very big mistake by not filing a complaint because the police threatened me that if I complained somewhere else about all this, they’ll frame me in this case. My wife, my children, my brothers and all my family members used to say that we should file a complaint. But I was the one to stop them from doing that. I was of the view that if we rub the police wrong way, they may arrest me. Because of this fear I stopped everyone.

When you were arrested, did you know anyone from the 12 accused previously ?

Among the 13 accused, one of them named Sajid Ansari is my brother-in-law. I didn’t know rest of them. I met the others for the first time in the police station, the detention centre, the ATS torture room or in the jail. There I came to know that the rest of them were also falsely framed. When the chargesheet came out, I got to know that they all were playing the roles given by the police. The nine years we stayed together, we realised that we all have been framed wrongly and we were innocent. Hence we felt the need of coming out of the case. We all united and fought against this case so that we can be released, but sadly they couldn’t come out.

I would like to mention that the book is in Urdu and soon enough it’ll come in Hindi and English as well. In the book Wahid has shared his experiences of torture room. Wahid sahab, you were in Arthur Road jail and the Maharashtra ATS was investigating. Tell us something about how the Maharashtra ATS used to torture you. degree all of this was used. Tell us something about that.

The ATS put us through the most inhuman torture for a very long period. If I experienced it for some 60 days, the other accused faced it for 70 days and some other for 90 days. They have been trained properly on how to torture someone, when to do what and till what extent. They know the drill pretty well.

In the first degree, they abuse in the name of your religion, your parents and your family.  They slap, kick and put one inside a room with handcuffs. They leave you standing at a height with handcuffs on you. You can neither sit there nor lie down. Even if you want to use the toilet or any such thing, they won’t let you move. You have to do everything there itself.

In the second degree, they make you stand naked and hit you on your legs and hands using straps. Simultaneously they blindfold you and put you inside a dark room for many days. There’s no air, no light and no water in that room. The person feels as if he is inside a coffin. When the individual bears of all this and doesn’t listen to what they say, third degree is used for him.

The third degree is totally out of control, it breaks the person fully. They give electric shocks on your private parts, they did this with us. It’s unbearable for an individual. They put some oil called ‘suryaprakash’ in your anus, that creates a burning sensation inside the whole body. With this they use water boarding. In this, they hang you upside down and fill your nose, your mouth and your ears fully with water. You feel as if you are drowning in a sea and you are about to die. There are many other such examples of such torture. I get goosebumps whenever I try to remember all of it, how I had to suffer.

Their only purpose of doing all of this was to make us sign on the readymade story they had written, that is, the confession page. Confession means that an individual who is guilty of some activity narrates about everything and accepts his mistake. It means that the individual wants to repent for his actions. But the police have entirely changed the meaning of confession. They bring some readymade fiction and force you to sign it.

We have seen in almost all the cases of ATS that this confession page is their biggest proof against the accused. They don’t do the rest of the investigation and the case remains weak. I have noticed cases of the Delhi special cell too, even there the confession letter is its primary proof. Even after facing so much of the torture, you did not give up, you didn’t sign the confession letter. This is the reason why the court released you. But the other accused signed the confession letters? With what confidence are you claiming that other convicts were innocent?

It’s not that I did not sign the confession because I could stand throughout their torture. They tortured me to some extent and if that would have continued for another three or four days, I too would have given up. After reaching a point they stopped torturing me. Why would they do me a favour, I thought about it. After all, they were not my friends. We discussed this in the court too. The police had to show that they all the confessions they took were voluntarily given to them by the accused. If the confessions of all the 13 accused would have been presented in the court, there could have been a counter point that all of these have been taken forcibly. To make the case look more original they left me out. Also, in this whole case my role was the smallest, that of harbouring terrorists.

As I was charged with giving shelter to the Pakistanis who planted the bomb, they thought that my confession would not be required. They thought that a witness will be enough for my small role and if in the rest of the confessions they could interpose my name, my role would seem credible. So accordingly, they put my name in two other confessions stating that the Pakistanis stayed at my place and further, by threatening and beating, made my relative a witness against me. But in court, my relative said everything truthfully. Hence, in absence of any confession and witness I was not punished and therefore released. But sadly, there were confessions recorded against the other 12 accused. Their relatives even gave false statement against them in the court with some other witnesses made up by the police.

Coming back to your question that with confidence I am claiming that the other accused are innocent. I say so because this whole case is a fiction, they made me a part of it by claiming that some Pakistanis came to India, planted the bomb and after doing so stayed at Wahid’s place and then crossed the border. See, when a link in the story falters the other links start to look doubtful. When I know that there were no Pakistanis who stayed at my place, then how did they take part in the bomb blast. Secondly, I stayed with the rest of the 12 accused for nine years. I have observed their character, their family, their way of talking and their living style. Thirdly, I was present there when the police was threatening them to sign the confession and threatened them if they don’t agree they would bring their father and wife to the police station and make them stand naked. Any terrorist who is really guilty of being part of such blasts will give up quite easily. In their case the police had tortured them badly for days to take their signs on the confession page. They made up false witnesses against them and even convinced their family members to give statements against them. This is the reason I am pretty sure that they are as innocent as I am.

In your book, you have mentioned that the investigation process of the ATS is a system in itself. The doctors who give the fitness certificate or the lawyers are complicit with the police. You accuse the whole system, from the investigation to the judicial process. Tell us about that.

In Bombay KEM is a very big municipal hospital. Following the Supreme Court order, after torturing us they used to take us to that KEM municipal hospital within 48 hours. But no doctor ever did our medical examination or body examination in that period. They used to make us wear a burkha and then take us to the hospital. They never used to take the burkha off us and even if they did they used to keep us at a distance. The whole purpose of taking the accused to the doctor within 48 hours is that the doctor could check whether the accused has been harassed or physically tortured. And if there is anything like that then doctor has to record it. But no doctor followed the directives. This is the reason we claimed that the doctors of KEM hospital were bought by the ATS police. They police reasoned with the doctors saying that as we were terrorists they should not check our bodies.

Secondly, our narco analysis test was done by Dr S. Malini from Bangalore who was an expert.

She has been fired now, right?

Yes she has been fired now because she used a fake degree to get that post.

In that narco analysis test which was also done on me, we realised how we were forced to answer what ATS wanted us to. That doctor used to torture us inside the operation theatre while we were on the stretcher. She used to beat us, scratch our ears. This shows how even she was involved with the police.

You have also written about this narco test. Share something about it.

I have written an entire chapter about the narco test in my book. Today, the evidence value of that is nothing. But this test is so dangerous that if there is any slight overdose the person can go into coma and can even die. The accused is given anaesthesia and is made semi-conscious. They ask you some questions and then they record your answer. They make a CD out of it and on that basis the investigation moves ahead. I must tell you that this whole process of Narco test is a fake.

What were the question the doctor asked you during the test ?

The right kind of questions she asked was “What is your name ? Where is your flat ?” I answered them in a pretty straightforward way. When she asked us about the blasts, I said I have no idea. Then she asked how many Pakistanis came. To that too I answered in negative. Then she kept asking me to say that ‘six Pakistanis didn’t come.’ They edited the recording and made that sentence into ‘six Pakistanis came to my home’. This is how they edited the whole CD. She then asked about how a TV is controlled, to which I gave the obvious the answer, that is, by a remote. She herself gave the answers and made us repeat that. We thought that these questions were not dangerous, there’s no harm in answering them.

They used that remote control answer to the question ‘how bombs are detonated’, you mentioned in your book.

Exactly. They used it for how bombs were made or how you controlled it. This is how they manipulated everything and presented the CD and the narco test.

Were all the policemen involved ? You have mentioned in the book about a policeman who behaved with you in a nice manner, what about him? Also tell something about the experiences of those nine years with the jailor.

Not all the members of the ATS were bad. Two-three of them behaved properly. Mumbai ATS’s assistant police commissioner, Vinod Bhatt who was a very nice person. K.P. Raghuvanshi had ordered him to frame charges against us.

K.P. Raghuvanshi was the chief of Bombay ATS at that time who is responsible for framing us. He was the one who framed many innocent Muslims in the Malegaon bomb blast too. He is the main conspirator. He’s very worthless and has led this conspiracy against us. He has not only framed many innocents but also made sure that they get proper punishment. Five of them have got death sentence and are in jail right now. It was Raghuvanshi who ordered Vinod Bhatt to file a charge sheet against us and make sure that we are convicted. When Vinod Bhatt interacted with us and interrogated us he realised that we are being framed wrongly. So, Vinod Bhatt didn’t agree to file a false charge sheet against us. He was threatened that if he doesn’t act accordingly, they’ll put her wife in jail. There was small case against her wife. Vinod Bhatt was under a lot of pressure. He didn’t file the charge sheet against us but committed suicide in front of the same train in which the blasts took place.

There was another officer called Arun Sambhaji Khanwilkar. He was my investigating officer. He tortured me, harassed me way too much but in the end he realised that I had no role in all of this and I was innocent. He came to me and apologised to me saying that he would definitely help me in some way. These were the two officers I came across whom I felt were nice individuals. Apart from these two, the whole staff and the doctors, all of them were part of the conspiracy.

You have documented your prison experiences. You were kept in solitary confinements and sound proof chambers. How did the jailor behave with you and how did they break the jail manuals?

In the jail manual it is clearly mentioned in detail about how to behave and how much food is to be given. These rules are only for the books, they look fascinating in the books of the law but they are never adhered to.  The first day when we went inside the jail, we were welcomed by sticks. We were kept inside the Anda Cell (solitary confinement chamber). Not only this, Swati Sathe (jailor) used to let the ATS officers like K.P. Raghuvanshi, Vijay Salaksar and many other come inside the jail. They used to threaten us that we have to become an approver in this case and if we don’t agree, we will be in a lot of painl. This is how they started to hurt us. I remember once they beat us so badly that our shirt and pants were fully soaked in blood and in that very same condition they dumped us in some other jail without any medical treatment. After 15 days in the other jail we received medical treatment. The jailor feels as if the accused is their captive. The jailor can hit him, harass him and can do whatever they wanted. We were never treated in a proper way in jail and didn’t get any facility. There is a famous saying that if you are in jail for pick pocketing you will be ill-treated, but if you do a thousand crore scam you will receive a grand welcome in the jail. So all those people who were part of big cases were used to spend money and stay quite lavishly in the jail. They used to get tiffins, mobile phones and TV.

You were released from jail after nine years, did you demand for any compensation? There are many state run organizations like NHRC and all. So did you ever try to contact them or write any letters to them in order to highlight the intricacies of the case?

In these nine years, we have recorded complaints against all the ATS officers, with their names, date and time and location of the places. From the police commissioner A.N. Roy to an officer of the ATS, all the complaints are in the court records. Secondly, we have registered our complaints with all the human rights organizations. From the jail itself we tried to convey to them through applications that we have been framed falsely and the case should be re-investigated. But no one replied in a positive way. Thirdly, on the matter of compensation I would like to mention that if someone is dying, we first try to save the person and further think of anything else. My five friends have been sentenced to death by the court. So my priority now is to get justice for them and then I can think of compensation or anything like that. For me, monetary value is very less than the value of a life.

One question that also comes up is how your family cope up in these nine years?

My family was the most disturbed. My father died, my mother got sick mentally. My wife on the hand had to come out of house and earn for the children. In between all of this she got ill several times. Even now she is not well. She stays on bed for most of the time.

Did you suffer from any illness too?

Because of the torture I had to face, I have problem in both my legs. Some bones are damaged and I cannot walk without wearing the medicated shoes prescribed by the doctor. Both my eyes are damaged too because of the torture. Gradually I am loosing vision in both eyes.

You have gone back to your teaching profession in Anjuman-e-Islam school. You have been appointed there again with all respect. You have gone back to teaching science. Apart from that you have also taken up the role of an activist now and you are trying to help those who are allegedly framed falsely.

I have not written the book in the form of an autobiography. I have not only just narrated the incidents, instead I have simultaneously written about what should have been done ideally and what steps the accused must take. I have mentioned the role the civil society should play, a family should play and how to approach the case. I have written about the process to be followed by the accused, where to file a complaint, how to file a RTI and everything. I have also written about what a confession is and how to dodge that. I have written about everything minutely.

Do you think that if you would have fought the way you have mentioned in the book you would have been in a better position ?

One hundred percent, I feel so. If someone would have written a book like this previously and if we would have read it, we would have never signed on the confession page. We would have died but not sign on the confession page. It’s pretty right to say that this book is a guideline for the ones who have been accused falsely.

Be it ATS or the Delhi special cell, there are lots of cases like this where people have been falsely accused. It has been highlighted in the media too. These people who get trapped into all of this spend most of their youth in jails but still there is no mechanism of compensation or rehabilitation for them by the state. Perhaps, it is time the media too looks into the veracity of such cases.

This interview was originally conducted in Hindi and was translated. To watch the Hindi version, please click here.